Embrace of the Wild
Inspired by Equestrian Explorer Isabella Bird
by Linda Ballou
Genre: Historical Fiction
The narrow track now slippery with red mud was treacherous. My mare struggled for traction with her legs sliding out from under her. Cascades streaking white down the cleft of the pali dislodged rocks that rattled down the mountain. At times the rain was so dense, I lost sight of Kilani who forged ahead undaunted. We crossed several smaller gulches with rushing water up to my horses belly without incident. But, when we arrived at the lip of Hakalau gulch lost my conviction. Foaming water broiling in a riotous rush to the sea had risen half way up the side of the water corridor. Limbs of trees and leaves swirled in a muddy chaos below. The thunderous sound of breakers crashing on the sea cliffs filled me with dread. If I didn’t drown in the river, I would surely be crushed on the rocks by the pounding sea. I decided I would prefer spending a night in the rain on the shore over attempting this crossing.
Two native men on the other side of the raging torrent had lassoed the horse of a woman trying to reach the other side. With ropes tied to trees they were pulling her to the shore. Her horse floundered falling backwards into the brew. The woman went into the drink. She clung to the horn of the saddle while her body was caught in the current. With a herculean effort the men pulled the flailing animal to the shore. The horse found purchase and the woman was rescued.
Kilani was not dissuaded by the perilous crossing we just witnessed. She stood on the edge of the gulch prepared to jump into a certain death. The men threw the lasso over her horses head and she pressed her horse forward. My heart was in my throat as I watched her being picked up by the roiling water and sent spinning downstream. I screamed over the wild chorus of the river for her to face the flow. She was attempting to cross sideways with her horse completely submerged up to its head. She managed to swing around to face the torrent and the men were able to pull the wretched animal towards the shore. The horse’s eyes rolled white with fear, snorting and puffing as it struggled with every ounce of it’s being to find footing on slippery rocks while the rain pounded even more intensely. Kilani managed to gather herself back onto the horse as it lurched up the far bank of the river. I could only hope for her that her husband’s affections would be rewarded in kind.
I made my decision not to follow her lead to a sudden death. But, as I was about to turn back a lasso was draped around my mare’s neck. Without so much as an “Are you ready?” I was pulled into the roiling drink. Instantly immersed up to my neck, I had no choice but to press forward. I spurred the hapless animal beneath me with all my might. She was swimming toward the far side, but we were drifting towards the sea. I yelled for help over the roar to no avail. My screams were swallowed in the roar of the ceaseless foaming rollers below. This looked to be a sad ending to my new found freedom.
From shore Kilani screamed “Spur. Spur. Spur.” Both men were on the rope they pulled taunt around my horse’s neck. They secured their feet on boulders and grunted with each pull giving a small release so they did not choke her to death. The animal was gasping, and gave out a sorrowful whinny that shook her entire body. I was lifted by the water out of the saddle. My arms were being pulled out of their sockets as I clung to the big horn of the Mexican saddle. The rain was blinding and I was about to let go and join the spirits in the underworld of Po. Suddenly, my mare found a reserve of strength and lurched forward. With the help of the men pulling her, she was able to swim close enough to the shore to scramble up the slick wall of mud and out of the torrent.
Upa finally arrived with a mule in tow. The men tossed him the rope that he put around the creatures neck. He deftly hopped rocks, dove into the muddy brew and navigated the charging river like an amphibious creature leading the mule behind him. He laughed loudly when he reached our party on the other side.
“Lucky we get here today,” Upa said.
My horse stood trembling. My teeth chattered involuntarily. The tumult of blinding rain had not ceased. I didn’t feel lucky.
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