But over the crashing of waves a shrill wail rose, and I jerked upright. My eyes scanned the shoreline below me. When I saw the source of the sound, my heart leapt into my throat.
A horse, knee-deep in foamy water, was thrashing among the jagged rocks whose summits barely cleared the water. He was alone. Wondering briefly how he’d gotten down there- and why he couldn’t come back up- I studied the cliff. There was only one conceivable path down, and it was fairly steep. The horse, continuing to splash about, whinnied again. I hurried to the edge of the trail. I could not in good conscience leave him there, although I had sworn three years ago never to go near another horse again, after my mother died during a riding accident. Slowly, I made my way down.
Near the bottom the rocks were slippery. The horse was near now, and the problem suddenly became obvious to me. He was saddled and bridled, and his hoof had gotten caught in the reins, thus preventing him from climbing to safety.
I was so intent on the horse that I neglected to take care with my own footsteps. Suddenly my leg flew out from underneath me and I slammed into a rock. The air whooshed out of me, and I lay still, struggling for my breath. I was submerged up to my chest in water, and it splashed up in my face, moving me to open my eyes. Mere inches away the horse stood perfectly still. My heart stopped. He exhaled above me and took a half step backwards. His hooves disturbed the water alarmingly near to my head. The thought that raced through my head through my head was that I could easily die the same way my mother had; my skull crushed by a horse’s hoof.
“Easy,” I said softly, maneuvering to a position that I could stand from. My heart pounded in my chest, drowning out even the sound of the waves. The horse watched me with wary eyes as I slowly got to my feet. The water was up to his belly now. Unsettled by my movement, he stepped back, rolling his eyes. My bruised ribs protested as I lifted a hand towards him. He lowered his head and breathed on my arm, his nostrils flaring as he took in my scent.
I looked over the horse while he checked me out. Other than being soaked to the skin, he looked all right. He stamped a hoof, and I realized how close my feet were to his; underneath the swirling water, it was hard to gauge if he might step on me by accident. I put a hand on his sleek black shoulder. His skin twitched, but he didn’t move away. I ran a hand down his leg, and he picked up his hoof for me. “Good boy,” I murmured. “You’re well-trained.” Quickly I freed his hoof, gathering up the reins in a tight fist.
I exhaled, and all my adrenaline seemed to drain away. Presently I became aware of a throbbing in my ankle, which I must have twisted in my fall. “Isn’t this a fine kettle of fish,” I quipped. The horse pricked his ears towards me, listening to my voice. The water was now flowing freely up by my hips, a clear sign that we needed to get out of here. I grasped the horse’s bridle and told him, “Let’s go.”
The stallion took a reluctant step forward at my insistence. He hobbled, splashing more water at me. I worried then that he had injured himself. “Come on, boy,” I encouraged, and he lumbered awkwardly after me.
Then it was as if something clicked in his head. He suddenly realized that the reins weren’t looped over his leg anymore. He leapt forward, dragging me up the rocky cliff, and I lost my footing. Pain shot up my ankle at the same time that I swallowed water. Choking, I hauled myself to my feet with the horse’s reins. I coughed up water for several second before I was able to apologetically pat the horse’s shoulder. I hadn’t meant to pull on the reins like that; it had probably hurt his mouth.
“Let’s take it easy,” I cautioned him, coughing again. “Slow and steady.”
The horse nudged my elbow with his wet nose. This time he was willing to be patient with me. I was much less surefooted than he was, especially hobbling on my weak ankle. It was only halfway up the cliff path, when we had cleared the water, that it occurred to me that I still didn’t know where his rider was.
“If you hadn’t lost her somewhere, she could have helped you up that cliff,” I told him grouchily. He nudged my elbow again, and I knew I didn’t really mind having to rescue him from a watery grave. I looked up towards the heavens briefly and thanked God that I had been there to save him. A wave of grief washed over me as I thought of my mother. I still wasn’t willing to become a famous jockey or anything, but it actually felt good to break the vow that I’d said at her funeral. After all, I reflected, the horse she’d been riding hadn’t intended to kick her when she fell off.
Soggy and exhausted, I tramped the last few feet to total safety. The horse braced his legs wide apart and shook himself all over like a wet dog. However, I realized that the smell of wet horse was much more pleasant. I patted his neck tiredly. “Let’s go home.” From there, I figured I could raise the alarm about the horse’s missing rider. I hoped she wasn’t hurt, too, but I didn’t even know what direction the horse had come from before getting trapped in the high tide, so it was pointless to go looking.
I noticed he had become very still, raising his head and staring into the distance. Now he whinnied loudly next to my ear, scaring me half to death. “What’s up?” Patting him again, I followed his gaze.
A young woman dressed in riding clothes limped towards us, looking as battered as we did. I huffed under my breath, “Where were you twenty minutes ago?”