Saved by the Cavalry
by Jeremy James
A pewter-dun Criollo gelding, Gonzo stood 15.1 hands, was eight years old and had originally been imported into Italy as a slaughter horse. Slipping the butcher’s hook, he won remission as a hack in a stable outside Assisi but, being tricky to handle, wound up nobody’s favourite. He was sharp, aloof, hard to know. Plan was to tip him back into the meat trade. The coin was still fluttering through the fingers of fate when I pitched up. I knew straightaway he was what I wanted. I was looking for a horse who liked his own company, a horse with plenty of distance. The haggle was brief.
That night I lit a candle for him in the Basilica Superiore and if I can light candles for horses anywhere, I can light them in Assisi. We had a long way to go from his stable to my home in Wales.
The moon was a flying slice of yellow melon in an indigo sky when I fed Gonzo his breakfast and by the time the sun stepped out of the walls we were cutting through the long shadow of the Basilica in the olives beneath the town.
Taking a compass bearing of 310 degrees north, we climbed the west flank of Mount Subesio. The hill rose and dipped, the town dropped from sight. The great bells of the Basilica boomed behind us: it felt like the wave of a vanished hand, a signal of good luck – we were on our way.
It didn’t take us long to get to know each other. It happens when you’re thrown together with a travelling companion, particularly if your travelling companion happens to be a horse. You share everything together: beds, food, water, fleas, flies, ticks, lice - and scent. The most lingering sensation you experience when travelling with a horse is how the scent of the horse pervades everything: it gets into your skin, into your clothes, your food, the air around you. The journey itself becomes permeated with it, somehow it translates into comprehensible distance because it is with you all the time, everything becomes associated with it, everything absorbs it, it becomes part of the pace because it comes with you, every inch of the way, slowly, inexorably. Everything sails slowly by in its aroma: you get to feel everything more intensely because of it, the journey’s weariness, its surprises, its trials, its moments of triumph. Gonzo and I slept under the brilliance of the stars - I never carry a tent - we doubled-up in stables, in barns, enjoyed the chumminess of villages. ‘Bello cavallo!’ the children shouted running toward us in Umbria, Tuscany, Parma, Lombardy, Piedmonte: ‘bellissimo cavallini!’ Vague little animal tracks led us winding steadily up and down the contours of the high blown, high-scented sweet-chestnutted Apennini. Beetles scurried across our path, the cicadas rasped, bull frogs belched, foxes slipped through the rocks. We noticed every little indent and stone, experienced every waft of air. We beheld the glorious tableaux of Italy, its blue mountains, and crashing valleys, its grasses and wild flora and one day, on a tiny via bianca, in Tuscany, a mouse came dashing from the verge, hotly pursued by a viper. Gonzo’s nearside fore-hoof pounded into the ground between them. The mouse got away. The snake retreated. I looked down. The mouse crouched on the opposite verge rocking from side to side, holding his nose. Did he know what had just happened? Was he aware of the giant from the sky who had interceded upon his behalf? What staggering sliver of fortune had struck from above prolonging his life? What chances were these? Who would ever have laid odds on something like that dividing life from death? Could he actually see us? Were we too big, too remote, too incomprehensible? Had we deprived a decent snake of his lunch? What had taken place, just then? We moved on.
Outside a vinery a mile or two further, a jolly red-faced man beckoned. He was swigging a glass of wine. I’d never been round a vinery. ‘Your horse is thirsty.’ The man disappeared within and reappeared with a tin bucket. Gonzo steeped his muzzle. The man poured a glass of white for me and got another bottle. I told him about the snake and the mouse. ‘Ah,’ he mused wistfully, ‘saved by the cavalry.’ Our heads swung simultaneously to the cavalry who was by now busy clattering his empty tin bucket around the yard. The man refilled it. ‘Bello cavallo!’ he said and patted his great thick neck, ‘he has good taste.’ The cavalry, I twigged, had syphoned up two bucketfuls of fizzy white wine in so many minutes and was looking for a third. Mounting the cavalry a little later prove an incident worth forgetting, and after much leggy confusion we set off windmilling farewells, snorting and high-stepping and I still haven’t been round a vinery.
And if the cavalry was a pretty independent outfit at the best of times, after a couple of buckets of Italian white in him, he wasn’t about to depend on anything. The little dirt track struggled upward, and up we went, sloshing with fizzy wine, eyes blazing, ears pricked, snorting, taut as a drum, the cavalry was out to inflict damage.
His opportunity arrived in spectacular regiment.
Zooming around the corner, in whirring, headlong flight rattled a nun on a bicycle. She even surprised me. Vestments billowing black behind her, her starched wimple flapping, bike-bell ringing, she came pelting toward us like some demented terrestrial bat. I cannot imagine what image filled the cavalry’s mind. Whatever it was, it was quick. Our exit from the track was a plunge. Vines flashed by, the brown earth tore beneath our feet, the world spun under his hooves; bucking and squealing we hammered off in the general direction of China. For a long time. Finally, finally, we came to a panting, sweat-rimed, battered halt in a swampy chunk of nowhere in particular. Tossed over his shoulder like a rag doll, caught between terror, hysteria and fizzy wine, I was firmly deposited in the mud, courtesy of the Flying Nun of the Via Bianca Somewhere in Tuscany. I hope she proffered her confession to Mother Superior. The cavalry sighed, looked back upon the route down which we had just cavorted, swished his tail, dismissing it as another episode in the equine equation and bent his great patrician head to the herbs. Unsaddling him, I threw my bedding on the wet earth and fell into a fitful sleep. Little did she know, this Sister of Changed Destinies, but she, or God, or someone, maybe it was the man in the winery, or the snake and the mouse, but we wound up walking to Wales by another route, altogether.
Welsh Long Rider Jeremy James, and his trusty Criollo, Gonzo.
(Click to enlarge)
It took us three months. We struggled with the Alps, teetered on cliff tops, got caught on an aqueduct on a canal in France where the tourists on the approaching barge flapped and waved and stretched out their hands to stroke the nice horsey not realizing one foot wrong and we’d either have been under their boat or over the aqueduct wall straight onto the rocks a hundred feet below.
We travelled he and I, half with our hearts in our mouths and half with our our heads in heaven. We went hungry. We were overfilled. We touched the earth, knew all about the rain, the heat, it was rough. It was smooth. It was late November by the time we caught the ferry from Le Havre to Portsmouth and deep winter by the time we arrived at my little cottage in Wales.
I know what it feels like to make a pilgrimage because of Gonzo: to tread the path from Assisi, to sleep beneath the spangled sky, hear the owls, feel funny little etheric frissons imparting their elemental secrets which only he could interpret, I wondered more than once who should be wearing the bridle. He and I know how far it is from Assisi on foot, what a comprehensible thing it is, how beautiful it is, how difficult it is. Normandy, the Forest of Orleans, the Loire, Burgundy, Beaune, the Alps, Lombardia, the Appenini, nuns, mice, snakes, spaghetti, streams, rivers, people with barley running through their fingers. It’s a long, long way. And Gonzo. Blesséd Gonzo, departed this year to graze with the phantom herds upon the rolling seas of silver grass. Gonzo, cavalry, old friend, you and your extraordinary, aloof, sweet-breathed, accommodating, dimension-shifting equine heart will beat forever in my soul.
Jeremy James is a member of The Long Riders Guild and the author of Saddletramp and Vagabond.
Stories from the Road Home
Stories from the Road Home