The Riderless Horse

© Catherine Lee

Winner, 2021 Laura Literary Awards, The CJ Dennis Poetry Awards – Open Bush Poetry, Laura, South Australia.

Where mountains loom black on a darkening skyline and cradle a myriad stars,
their forested slopes in a blanket of growth that no timber machinery mars;
when bandicoots, wombats and possums emerge from their cover of daytime cocoon
and dingoes start howling their timeless lament to inscrutable luminous moon,
there’d come from the valley a thunder of hooves that would resonate into the night;
the earth seemed to tremble—small creatures dispersed, while the startled rosellas took flight.
Then stillness descended—a shadow emerged like a king to survey his domain—
the clouds of dust settled, revealing the shape of a stallion with dew on his mane.

They said the magnificent riderless steed was still seeking the master he’d lost
when Jack was assaulted on Warrabee Track to his tragically ultimate cost.
They dragged him to earth in a vicious attack, thrashed him senseless and nicked all his gear,
attempted to steal his superlative mount, but the stockhorse was blinded by fear.
He reared up in panic—the thieves hit the ground and were rapidly forced to desist—
then saddle askew and his reins flapping randomly, disappeared into the mist.
With Jack in a coma, we all tried to track his devoted and heartbroken friend;
the beast was elusive—no more would he venture to trust what a man might intend.

With scant understanding of what had occurred, just a sense of contentment defiled,
he took to the hills in frustration where soon in his freedom and rage he turned wild,
became like a phantom that haunted the bush as he searched for the stockman in vain—
though sightings were common, his place of concealment we somehow could not ascertain.
Not seen in the day, after dark without fail the exceptional equine came back—
appeared like a dream on the crest of the mountain which soars above Warrabee Track,
parading in solitude faithfully waiting, a schedule not once seen to change—
unbidden, he honoured the man that he loved by repeatedly pacing the range.

The riderless horse had become so familiar a sight around Warrabee Plain,
we took it for granted his grief-stricken presence was one that was sure to remain.
But early one morning I suddenly woke with a sharp premonition and chill—
without comprehension raced out the back door—then astounded, fell perfectly still.
The full moon was casting a shimmering glow, while above like a proud statuette
a breathtaking vision stood high on the summit displayed in distinct silhouette.
His saddle now tightened and reins firmly grasped in a confident, sensitive hand,
the animal snorted, alert and relaxed as his rider examined the land.

A posture I knew like my own—now my eyes revealed truth I just couldn’t dispel!
I gaped disbelieving as Jack raised his hand in a poignant and final farewell.
Though sorrow encroached, I felt strangely at peace with a sense of release unsurpassed,
while somehow perceiving this image of both of them certainly must be my last.
I watched as they reared against velvety sky, spun around, bolted off in a streak,
to vanish from view in a flurry of burgeoning dust from the edge of the peak,
then waited awhile till the phone pierced the silence, confirming my instinct inside
that Jack had succumbed to his multiple lesions and finally, quietly died.

Out here where the spinifex tosses and blows and the stars dance in glittering show,
the dingoes still howl on the Warrabee Track in the moonlight’s ethereal glow;
nocturnal pursuits carry on through the forests that thrive on both mountain and plain—
but never again have those thundering hooves split the calm of this tranquil terrain.
Though grieving for Jack, we believe he’s still out there astride his remarkable horse—
such faith the result of this story I’ve shared, which our mates staunchly choose to endorse,
convinced of that blissful, triumphant reunion just prior to imminent light
when stallion and master together at last galloped forth into limitless night.

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