Katie and Jane grabbed a headstall each from the tack room and made their way to the bottom paddock. They’d been friends since primary school, and although they were now in their mid-teens and their interest in boys had increased of late, they still loved to take their horses out for a ride each Saturday afternoon.
Today was just an ordinary Saturday, or so they thought. It was late Autumn and the deciduous trees had already turned beautiful reds and oranges. Some had already started to lose their leaves so the ground underfoot was crunchy in places . There was a hint of Winter in the air, though not yet cold enough for the Driza-Bones they had to wear for a few months of the year to protect them from the biting cold.
The girls laughed and chatted about who they hoped to see at the pictures that night, as they walked the five minutes to the far corner of the paddock. Midnight, Jane’s shiny black gelding, and Poppet, Kate’s petite bay mare, were waiting for them, and knowing the Saturday afternoon routine gave soft snickers as the girls approached.
Midnight and Poppet walked calmly alongside the girls on the way back to the tack room and waited patiently at the stables while their rugs were removed; they were given a brush to remove the mud from their legs, their shoes were checked, their saddles were put on, girths tightened and bridles fitted.
As she always did on Saturday afternoon before leaving the stables, Katie took out her mobile phone and called her mum. “Hi Mum, the horses are saddled and we’re ready to go. We should be out for an hour, hour and half tops….. yeah, we’ll probably go the same way we usually do…. see ya, loves ya!”
With a final check of the girths, the girls mounted their horses and headed them East, towards town. There was a well-defined bridle path and the horses knew the way. They knew the spots where they’d get to canter up the hills, and where they had to walk carefully where the path was narrow and a slip could see them falling into the creek below.
Katie and Jane chatted easily; they’d been best friends for over ten years and knew each other’s secrets and dreams. Jane was more reserved than Katie and most people who didn’t know her well thought she was too quiet and was only interested in her horse. But Katie, the one who other girls wanted to be friends with, knew that there was more to Jane than met the eye. She had strength of character that others didn’t often see. She wanted to go to university, become a successful author and travel the world. She was close to her family and she’d never want to be separated from Midnight for long so she’d not stay away for extended periods of time. She was a very loyal friend too, and Katie appreciated her for that.
Katie was more popular at school, and had plenty of attention from the boys. She had other friends aside from Jane, but her favourite part of the week was their Saturday afternoon ride where they could just be themselves without caring what the other kids thought of them. Katie had plans too; she didn’t want to go to university as it would mean leaving home, but she wanted to be a nurse and specialise in mental health. The girls knew they’d be friends forever, even if they weren’t always in their home town.
Midnight and Poppet were friends, in the way that horses are, and walked or jogged placidly beside each other. Midnight was a little younger and taller than Poppet and he looked to her for confirmation if something startled him in the bushes beside the bridle path.
“How far should we go today?” Jane asked
“Just the usual, I think” replied Katie “I told Mum that we wouldn’t be more than an hour and a half.”
“Ok, fine with me. How about you Midnight?” The horse flicked his ears backwards in agreement; he was always listening out for what Jane might ask him.
They continued on for another half an hour, sometimes chatting about things that had happened in school that week, who was going out with whom, and who they had a crush on; and sometimes just riding quietly, enjoying the rhythm of their horses beneath them and the smell of their warm bodies.
Before long, a gusty breeze started to pick up and the trees overhead creaked as the quartet passed beneath them. Midnight was getting nervous and Jane could sense his tension.
“Perhaps it’s time to turn back before the wind gets too strong?” Jane said.
“Ok, sure” said Katie as she slowed Poppet and then gently pulled her to a halt.
In the quiet that followed the stopping of the horses and the cessation of the girls’ chatter, a strange whirring sound could be heard, somewhere to the West of where Katie and Jane, Midnight and Poppet had stopped.
“What on earth is that?” exclaimed Katie
“I don’t know, but it sounds as though it’s coming from up that hill somewhere” said Jane, tilting her head to one side to see if she could pinpoint the location.
They turned the horses around and headed for home. The whirring sound could still be heard over the clatter of hooves. Midnight was now walking with purpose, his head held high, his ears pricked forward and an occasional snort escaped his nostrils. Even Poppet, normally calm and even- tempered, seemed a little jumpy and unsure.
“I think the sound is coming from up there” said Jane and pointed to a road off to the left of them. They’d never ridden up there as there was nothing to see, or so they’d been told. Without consultation with Katie, Jane steered Midnight to the left and headed towards the deserted road.
“Where are you going?” called Katie worriedly, who by now was getting left behind.
“I’m just going to see what it is” called Jane over her shoulder.
Katie was very surprised by her friend’s sudden interest in an adventure, but was not going to miss out! She gently squeezed Poppet into a trot and caught up with Jane and Midnight.
They rode side by side, legs touching as though to give each other some Dutch courage.
“I don’t think we should be coming up here” said Katie, “and besides, I told Mum we’d be home soon”.
“Don’t worry, it won’t take long” urged Jane, surprised at her own confidence.
The road was quite narrow – it was a bitumen road but didn’t look as though it got used very often. The surrounding bush was encroaching over the sides, and Midnight and Poppet had to walk in the middle of the road. The clip clop of their metal shoes echoed through the trees. There were no houses up here, and the road was steep in places.
“I think we should turn back now, there’s nothing here” pleaded Katie. She was usually the one full of confidence and sense of fun, but she was getting a strange feeling about this place.
“No, just a bit further, I can still hear the whirring” said Jane in a tone that Katie had not heard her use before. It frightened her, but she wasn’t going to leave Jane and Midnight up here on their own. She loved Jane too much for that.
The wind was still gusty and Midnight was not at all happy. He was blowing hard through his flared nostrils and shying at everything, or nothing. Jane sat comfortably on top and moved with him as he baulked.
Katie was feeling nervous – there was something eerie about this place. No one knew they were here – what if one of them fell, what if one of the horses bolted? Katie realised her imagination was running wild so to calm herself she got her mobile phone from her shirt pocket to ring her mum to let her know where they were. Her heart missed a beat when she saw that she had no reception. How can that be? They weren’t far from home. Katie felt totally isolated and for once in her life, didn’t know how to deal with this situation. Poppet was picking up on Midnight’s anxiety and she too started to dance at shadows. Katie put the phone back in her pocket and concentrated on staying on.
The girls continued in silence – Katie was too frightened to speak, and Jane was too determined to find out where the whirring was coming from. The road narrowed even further, the undergrowth grew denser and the trees loomed larger. The whirring got louder but still undefinable.
“We’ve come this far, it’s too late to go back” said Jane with fierce resolve.
Midnight and Poppet were by now blowing hard as they traversed yet another steep hill. Jane urged Midnight on and he reluctantly continued forward. Poppet was now the one needing re-assurance and she stuck close by the black gelding’s gleaming side.
As Jane and Midnight rounded the bend, the road came to an abrupt end. Nothing. No warning, no signs. Katie and Poppet pulled up alongside. The girls looked at each other in confusion.
They looked up and right ahead of them the bush gave way to a big open space. A small shed was on the right hand side of the clearing. To the left of the clearing the girls could vaguely make out a plantation of some sort. The whirring was much louder now but they couldn’t see what was causing it.
Individually but together, the reality of what they were looking at hit them. The horses pranced beneath them, terrified at the noise. A flock of cockatoos suddenly took off from a nearby tree and screeched their departure.
“Oh no, are you thinking what I’m thinking?” yelled Katie nervously. The whirring was now drowning out their speech.
“Uh ha, I think we’ve stumbled on a marijuana plot, a very large marijuana plot” Jane yelled back.
“Let’s get out of here now!!” implored Katie
“I’m with you on that!” screamed Jane, finally coming to her senses, but struggling to keep hold of Midnight.
Before the girls had chance to turn the horses around, five men in dark clothing ran from the shed, went round behind it and within seconds, a helicopter was airborne.
“Oh my god!!” shrieked the girls in unison as Midnight and Poppet reared at the sight and sound of the strange, noisy bird taking flight.
The helicopter circled threateningly low over the on-lookers; so low they were sure they’d be picked up and whisked away in the rotors. Midnight and Poppet momentarily froze, and then took flight with Katie and Jane clinging on for dear life.
The horses bolted in the only direction they knew – home. But they didn’t go back they way they’d come – they took the direct route. Midnight took the lead and galloped down the slope, dodging the trees and jumping over fallen logs. Jane was an accomplished rider but his pace and determination tested her skills to stay with him. Jane knew that she had to trust Midnight’s instincts and let him have his head – if she interfered with his direction they would both be in trouble. And she knew that Poppet, with Katie on board, was following their lead. She would never put her friend at risk.
After a couple of minutes, which felt like a lifetime, Midnight slowed to a jog to catch his breath and assess his surroundings. Jane relaxed momentarily and waited for Poppet and Katie to come alongside.
“Oh my god! I thought we were goners.” cried Katie. Her mascara had run down her cheeks and she looked like a frightened little girl. Last time Jane had seen her like this was years ago when they camped out overnight and Katie was scared of the bush as darkness fell.
“I know. I think we’re safe now though” Jane said, more confidently than she felt. But before they could work out which way to head next, the helicopter appeared above them and swept over them so low they could see the menacing faces of the men on board.
Midnight’s instincts took over and he and took flight again. The girls shrieked, barely keeping their balance. The helicopter followed them, just above the tree tops. Whichever way Midnight turned, with Poppet following faithfully behind, the helicopter was above them. He dodged left, took a fallen log in his stride and galloped on in the direction of the stables. Poppet was not confident in the bush, as she was used to trotting around the arena at pony club, but she wasn’t going to let Midnight out of her sight. The plucky little mare battled on, terrified of the noise above her, but was determined to get her friend Katie home safely.
Midnight slowed a little to get his bearings. The helicopter was still above the terrified quartet and there seemed to be no escape. But he continued forward, pushing through bracken, tripping on the fallen undergrowth, staying under the canopy of the gum trees. Jane was soaked in sweat and the muscles in her thighs burned. But she trusted her black gelding, and was proud of his effort in trying to get them home.
They hadn’t lost the helicopter – it was still chasing them and the men were calling out from the side. The words were lost in the whir of the chopper and the crashing of the horses through the undergrowth. It was unmistakable what they were threatening, though. The girls only had one thought – we have to get out of here NOW.
Midnight dodged and weaved, his sides heaving and his coat glistening with sweat. Jane’s thighs were now screaming in pain. Poppet and Katie were still with them, but the little mare was visibly distressed and Katie was also distraught but she knew if she came off now, she may never make it home. She had to trust Midnight and Jane.
The helicopter swept low in front of them and the horses careered off to the left. “Fuck, we’re dead!” screamed Jane. And just as suddenly the helicopter veered to the right and headed into the distance.
“What was that??” exclaimed Katie. “Do you think they’ve gone?” They pulled the horses up and sat for a moment.
“I think they know they’ve scared us enough and we won’t come back” said Jane, still gasping for breath.
“Yeah, they’re right. I’m not going near that place again!” said Katie, tears streaming down her flushed cheeks.
Saturday afternoon returned to a semblance of normal and the girls rode the rest of the way home in silence. They knew each other well enough to know neither would tell anyone else what they had seen. It would be their secret.
They saw the familiar sight of the stables and the four of them heaved a huge sigh of relief.
“Where have you girls been? I’ve been worried sick about you. You said you’d be home an hour ago!!” exclaimed Katie’s mum as they sauntered into the mounting yard.
“Sorry Mum, we lost track of time” Katie managed “it’s all good”.