John Emery Phillips was bored.
He sat on his front fence and watched the scattered procession go past, with a mixture of hatred and envy. It just wasn't fair! Everyone in the district seemed to have a horse. Boys and girls were mounted on shaggy Shetland ponies, Welsh Mountain ponies, and sturdy, thickset cobs, and some were even riding expensive-looking part-Arab horses.
They all clip-clopped past his house on the way to the riding school or Pony Club, laughing and exchanging excited greetings among themselves. Some called to John, and he raised his hand in sullen acknowledgement without speaking.
Eventually they all vanished around the corner, and the street was quiet again. John heaved a long, dejected sigh.
His family just didn't like animals. Other families owned dogs and cats, rabbits and horses, but his parents kept saying that they couldn't afford animals. He never believed them. All around him were families who lived in shabbier houses than his, and seemed a lot poorer than his parents, and they had lots of animals.
He was sure that he was the only boy in the district without a horse. His blue heeler dog was so small and insignificant that it hardly counted as a proper pet. He slouched into the house
"There's nothing to do," he complained to his mother.
It was ten o'clock on a fine Saturday morning, and the weekend should have stretched in front of him full of promise, but there was nothing to do. It was too early in the year to go swimming, he was bored with bird-nesting, and he wasn't in the mood to fly kites with his little brother.
"Go outside and play," his mother suggested. She was cleaning out the kitchen cupboards, her face set in tight lines of worried thought.
"Play what?" John demanded. "If I had a pony like everyone else I could do lots of things."
"You've got a dog of your own," his mother snapped. "Now get out of my kitchen."
John left, still scowling. His dog, Blue, a small heeler, wagged his tail in welcome. John stroked him. It was true that he had a dog, but he had got him only after a lot of arguments and protests.
His face brightened as he noticed his father's car parked in the driveway. The boot was open, and his father was humming to himself as he stacked baskets, rods and newspaper parcels of bait in it.
He would go fishing with his Dad. If he got bored with fishing, he could always explore the bush behind the mountain streams. His father went fishing only in the most interesting spots.
His father went back into the garage. The contented humming stopped. There was a blood thirsty bellow. John chewed at his knuckles as he listened.
He and his young brother, Terry, had borrowed the new fishing line for the kite, but fishing line wasn't as satisfactory as string to fly kites. He suddenly remembered that they had returned it a bit tangled. Also, they had lost one of the new flies the last time they went yabbying. It wasn't the right time to ask his Dad to take him fishing.
John drifted quietly up and out of the driveway, and then gained speed until he had reached a safe distance around the corner. He stopped, and stood kicking at the footpath. There was still the problem of what to do.
He thought again of the procession of horses and their happy, carefree riders, and resentment filled him. It just wasn't fair. Everybody in the district had a horse of their own--everybody except him, and without a horse there was nothing to do. His parents wouldn't even let him hire a horse. They said that it was a waste of money.
He kicked again at the loose stones on the footpath. Blue sat and watched him, eyes bright, head cocked on one side.
"Hey Moony," called a cheerful voice.
John looked up. Jenny, a sharp-eyed girl with skinny fair plaits and a pointed nose, sat bareback on her fat mare Patsy, watching him.
"Lo, Jenn," he acknowledged.
He kept on kicking at the stones. Jenny might be a lot younger than him, and just a girl, but she was to be respected as a wage earner with her after-school job of peeling potatoes. All the same, he couldn't be bothered with Jenny this morning. She had a horse, and he didn't.
"Want a ride?"
John considered the offer. Riding behind someone was pretty tame, but it was better than nothing.
"The riding school is going to break in Big Red, but suit yourself." She shrugged and Patsy started to move away.
"All right," John said quickly.
It was somewhere to go, and often the breaker was thrown, to the jeers of onlookers. There were other, and what John thought were more prolonged ways of breaking in horses, but the lame owner of the riding school clung obstinately to his rough and ready old-fashioned methods of horse-breaking. It made for very exciting amusement whenever brumbies were trucked down to be broken in.
He stood on the fence and swung across on to Patsy's broad rump. Patsy shambled into her slow walk. Blue followed at her heels.
The riding school was considered the centre of excitement in the district. Once, it had been a thriving business that catered to the horse lovers of the large orchard-growing community, but now it had deteriorated to a ramshackle collection of sheds and stables, backing on to a large paddock with a creek running through.
The orchards were gone now, and the open rolling paddocks were rapidly being engulfed by the housing estates spreading through them. From these, the riding school owned by old Sam Hobbs, gathered its new clientele.
The place was crowded. The news about the unbroken chestnut gelding had spread very quickly. Boys and girls on horseback milled around in the enclosure. The stable roof seemed bowed under the weight of several small boys, and bigger boys roosted like so many birds on the branches of a large overhanging pine.
Jenny urged Patsy into a position near the high fence of the saddling yard. The new horse was a big powerful animal with a luxuriant mane and tail. He had already been saddled, and the bigger boys were clustered around, trying to hold him still.
All of their soothing and gentling was quite useless. His eyes rolled until they showed their whites, and his ears lay flat against his head, giving him a wicked, vicious look.
Old Hobbs had selected one of the older boys to have first ride. Wearing a gaudy checked shirt and broad-brimmed hat, he swung confidently into the saddle. His prowess as a good rider was acknowledged with a respectful hush. The gate was opened, and there was a silent scatter for the safety of the fence.
"No helmet," John whispered.
"Shush," Jenny whispered back.
The horse stood still for a few seconds, trembling and shivering, then exploded into movement. He arched his back and jumped, stiff-legged, and his rider came down in the saddle with a bone-shattering thump. He spun in circles, pig-rooted and dashed at the fence. The rider stuck to him, making soothing noises.
He bounded through the open gate and galloped down the paddock. His rider turned him from the fence, and he veered around, crossed the paddock and jumped the creek. The other boys yelled encouragement and advice to the distant rider. Old Hobbs was nearly out of his mind.
"Hold 'im," he roared, hopping from one foot to the other. "Away from that tree! Watch it! He's gonna carry on again."
For a few seconds, horse and rider vanished over the rise in the paddock. The watchers were silent as they waited. Back came the galloping horse, still with his rider, heading up to the sheds at a mad run.
The chorus of advice and encouragement started again. Almost as if he heard, the horse stopped dead and treated them to another exhibition of pig-rooting, going round and around in maddened circles. The rider lost his hat, but he stayed on. Tiring of pig-rooting, the horse made a rush at the shed wall. His rider pulled him around. There was one last stiff-legged bound, then the horse trotted slowly back into the yard, flanks heaving and all fight gone.
Helpers swarmed to hold him as his rider slid off. A fresh chorus of advice and congratulations set the horse trembling and shivering again.
The saddle was off, and the bridle was being replaced with a rope halter under the careful eyes of Old Hobbs when it happened. Blue suddenly shot into the enclosure. He nipped the ankle of the youth fitting the halter. The youth swore, dropped the halter and swung around to kick the dog.
The horse flung up its head, and minus a halter or bridle, bolted out the gate. He thundered down the paddock, to show a clean pair of heels as he took the far fence in an effortless jump.
"After 'im," Old Hobbs yelled. "He's likely to collect a car, and then bang go my six hundred dollars."
Jenny started to edge Patsy away from the line of horses against the fence when Old Hobbs spotted the dog at Patsy's heels.
"Right, young Phillips!" he exploded. "I've warned and warned you against bringing that damned mongrel here. Get it out before I put a bullet into its stupid head."
"Pooh," Jenny sniffed, after Patsy had plodded them out of earshot. "What an old sourpuss! Who'd want to hang around his lousy old riding school and flea-bitten nags anyway? It's an old dump."
"He may complain to Dad," John worried. "If Dad gets any more complaints about Blue, I'll get into trouble."
"Don't be silly," Jenny scoffed. "Old Hobbs never tells tales."
"Yeah, but this time he sounded really upset," John fretted. "He just may tell Dad."
"Why don't we go looking for the horse?" Jenny suggested, changing the subject.
John remembered how Old Hobb's blood curdling threads never did seem to reach his Dad's ears, and cheered slightly. The old man was cranky, obstinate and set in his ways, but he usually handled the mishaps at the riding school without involving parents.
John considered Jenny's suggestion. He remembered the speed with which the big chestnut horse had flashed over the paddock, and the effortless ease with which it had jumped the far fence. He tried to think of a tactful way of saying that Patsy was too fat and slow to catch a cold.
"If the boys can't catch it, we won't have a hope."
"Don't be silly," was Jenny's reply. "I'll get the spare halter and some apples. Bet I can catch it single-handed if you don't want to help."
Jenny's confidence was catching. John's spirits rose. He and Jenny stood a lot better chance of catching the nervous, frightened horse with placid old Patsy than the gang of excited kids whooping around the district. They would only scare it even more.
He shifted more comfortably on Patsy's rump. His Saturday was beginning to look like a lot more fun than fishing with his Dad.
"Let's go," he agreed.