A Clutter of Hooves
by Temba Magorimbo
The hooves cluttered, dust rose painting the sun caked ground rising and falling behind the animal as the brown filly cantered into the dusty ramshackle collection of buildings these people in these parts called Ironville. The sun was cruel on the land while the wind was punishing the inhabitants by sending fine dust grains into their eyelids and noses. The rains had held off but were expected. Yet, not even a cloud was appearing on the horizon to give the people a reprieve from the onslaught of another drought year.
He rode along the narrow streets coming upon a buggy ridden by a lady. He lifted his hat in greeting showing out his hungry smile. “Good aft’ noon my good ma'am.”
“Good afternoon stranger,” she replied like a well brought up woman. She did not smile or chat up strangers. This may be a two hose town because she had picked him clean as a stranger like a flock of vultures picking off the remains of a dead lamb.
“I ask of two things madam. One the hotel and two the Peterson family’s Grey Steer Ranch,” he had said.
“The hotel is at the corner end of the street and as to the Grey Steer Ranch, ask within the hotel my dear stranger,” she had replied.
“I thank you madam,” he raised his hat and galloped off. He showed his horse to the backyard where he unsaddled. He asked the stable boy to feed and water the horse before proffering a quarter. He rubbed the hair of the small boy who smiled with glee. The rider found a trough and therein he washed his face and neck before using his scarf top wipe the water off.
He asked for a room before having supper of bully beef and potatoes washed down by two quick pints of beer. As was customary, the regulars tried to price information on him as a stranger.
“My name is Jeremy. I come from the west, a hundred and twenty miles away. I am looking for my brother, Irvine Hardwood.”
“Oh,” the barman had said. “ Grey Steers Ranch was the last I saw him. This bar and others surely miss his ringing laughter. That big oaf of a man could send other men laughing at the way he laughed.”
“I heard so from the last letter he wrote about three weeks ago,” Jeremy replied. He got the directions to the ranch before taking it easy for the night. He paid for his board, lodgings and breakfast in the morning.
Two hours after leaving Ironville, he got lost twice before he reached a homestead. The clattering of hooves on the ground attracted a man and a woman who were in a kraal inspecting some sick calves. They walked hurriedly towards the veranda of the homestead. The man disappeared inside and reappeared soon enough. As he cantered to the homestead, the woman and man were standing looking at him with keen interest. The man held a rifle in his hands while Jeremy rode on his horse sending it sideways as he came to stop. He raised his hat.
“Good morning I say,” Jeremy started.
“Morning,” the man said gruffly.
“My, what a hot day,” continued Jeremy raising his hat to the woman.
“State your business,” the man with the rifle replied.
“I am Jeremy Hardwood. I look for a man called Irvine Hardwood whom the folks in town tell me worked here for a time,” Jeremy replied trying to keep his horse in one position. “Irvine did play a guitar singing love melodies as his way of passing the time.”
“Oh Mr. Irvine?” asked the woman.
“Rosalind, shut up!” boiled the man with the rifle.
“What?” she coiled back at him.
“This is business for the men, go inside,” commanded the rifleman.
“I will not be ordered around,” she replied.
“Very well then shut up and let us talk man to man,” replied the rifleman. “He worked here, stole a few things and left.”
“Irvine did not steal,” Jeremy defended.
“Who are you to tell me that?” asked the rifleman.
“Irvine sort of just did not turn back after a round of drinks in town. “ The woman had replied. “For a man that worked so hard and well, I was very disappointed in him.”
“Timothy you are not man enough to be a man of the house!” Rosalind stormed. She looked at Jeremy on the saddle and replied through him looking past him. “Mister, the stables are down there. Go there, unsaddle your horse and water it. I will not deny a traveller a good breakfast even though your brother did not leave here the way I expect a man to.”
“I have spoken,” she turned and entered the house. Jeremy rode for the stables. Ten minutes later he was back with his horse fed, watered and the saddle hanging by a wooden wall. He had breakfast talking about his elder brother. “My own man, Jack just rode off in a huff without even saying ‘good-bye’.”
At that, Rosalind wiped her face with a kerchief looking into the distance.
“Both were cowards I tell you. But the night Irvine did not come back is the night two steers went missing,” Timothy was adamant. Jeremy could sense the hostility. He would have felt the same in Timothy’s place having to protect his brother’s wife from a stranger after the brother had unceremoniously ridden off eight months ago.
“Yes I know but deep down I refuse to think that Irvine is a thief,” Rosalind defended.
“Believe me, he was my brother. He worked for an honest dollar. He left a wife and three kids back there after they had their differences and the drought had forced him off the land,” Jeremy replied. “But he did still care for them even though.”
“How long are you staying?”
“Timothy that is being rude!”
“Not long,” Jeremy replied. “Would you require a helping hand on the farm for I could surely help?”
“No,” Timothy replied.
“You can help stack the hay for the coming winter. I will pay you well,” Rosalind had replied.
“I was not looking at the pay. I am a gold panner crossing to look for my elder brother. We were so close being the two of us only left in the world. I will return back west to my mountain place in three weeks. If you can make use of me then, it will be your labour luck.”
“Thanks but no thanks; we do not need cheap labour!”
“He stays!” Rosalind declared. “Timothy is over protective of me ever since his brother rode off.”
Even Timothy was astonished by the power coming out of the talk and slender bulk of Jeremy as they worked for the next two weeks together. Be it running after cattle, fencing, haying making and stacking, Jeremy was good. Jeremy was feeding the horses in the stables when Timothy came in.
“Bad news. I heard a gang of thieves been riding this way. I saw what I think is a spoor, can we ride?”
“Be my guest,” Jeremy saddled up his horse. They mounted riding spread out looking at miscellaneous items. They reached the apex of a hill guarding the farm.
Jeremy dismounted and started checking the ground where horses had trod. Something just made him look up as Timothy aimed his six-shooter at him. Jeremy rolled. Two shots rang out but Jeremy was still rolling while Timothy was correcting his aim while on horseback. Jeremy picked up a large stone on the roll and threw it hard. He dived to one side by which time four gunshots had been fired.
The rock hit the horse hard. The mare rose on its forelegs throwing Timothy off balance for a few vital seconds. Jeremy threw another rock. This time the mare threw the rider off hard before galloping down the hill. A head butt, a knee in the groin and a double fisted wallop had Timothy out cold. Jeremy looked around and there on the ground were two mounds of earth.
He rode back to the farm leaving Timothy strongly tied up in the stable. Rosalind rode for the Sheriff while Jeremy found a shovel and came back to the hill to await the arrival of the posse. As he suspected, both men had ‘walked away from Rosalind’ through two gunshots in the head.