Hoofbeats
 

 

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                                                    Hoofbeats

                                  by Anne K. Edwards

 

Hoofbeats! This time of night? In such a blizzard?

            Ole Mike rose from his warm bed and picked up his lantern. He lit it from the embers in the fireplace.  Tossing a bit of wood on them, he watched with satisfaction as they grabbed onto it with hungry red fingers. He hung the coffeepot on the hook and swung it over the growing flames, then pulled his boots on. As always, the stone floor was cold.

            He heard the hoofbeats again. Nearer. Was that a whinny?

            He shook his head at some folks’ stupidity. Wasn’t his horse. He didn’t have any more. Ole Bub had up an’ died a year back and he didn’t see the sense on buying another. Town had grown so, it was nearly at his door.  Wouldn’t be long before they wanted his land to build on, a thing he feared.

            But that didn’t matter at the moment. He pushed himself up from the creaky wood chair by the fireplace and took up his worn coat.
            Better go see who was riding around in the storm.

            Taking up his lantern, he pulled his coat tight and opened the door. Regretting the necessity that drew him away from the snug security of his cabin, he stepped into the blowing snow.

            “Halloo,” he called several times.

            No answer.

            He cried “Halloo” above the storm..

            The wind made his lantern gutter as it picked up.

            Hoofbeats again! Closer now.

            Ole Mike peered blindly about in the snow that felt like hot ashes on his face. He called once more and waited, listening.

            The snow made it hard to see.

            It came to him that he shouldn’t be hearing hoofbeats either. The snow always muffled sound. So why did he hear them now?

            A shadow loomed over him. It whinnied. Nearly a scream. Like Dapple used to do when he wanted his grain.

            Ah, Dapple. So many years ago. They had been young fools together.

            Tears filled Ole Mike’s eyes. He peered up at the shadow.

            It rose before him, then came down.

            Dapple! He’d recognize that gray and white head anywhere. He’d never forgotten.

            His hand trembled as he raised it to the well-loved face of the horse that belonged to another era.

            “Dapple?” He touched the velvety nose that pushed at his hand. “How?”

            The horse took Ole Mike’s sleeve in his teeth and tugged. Their old game when Dapple wanted a run with Mike on his back.

            Ole Mike shook his head sadly. “I can’t, Dapple. I’m old now and stiff. You remember how that is. Like you were that last year.”

            Tears froze on Ole Mike’s cheek. “I wish I could, Dapple. I wish I could.” He sighed.

            Dapple shook his head, pulling insistently on the sleeve he still held in his teeth, his breath turning white in the frigid air.

            Ole Mike set the lantern aside and wrapped his free arm about the warm neck of his first love. “Ah, Dapple. Ah. I’m too old. And this is only a lovely dream.”

            In his mind he knew it was a dream. He wasn’t cold any more. And Dapple had been gone over forty years. This sort of thing just wasn’t possible.

            The snow stopped. Just like that.

            Ole Mike stared out over the frozen landscape. The mountains were merged with the valley under the thick white blanket. It would take the town a long time to dig out.

            He could see smoke rising from some of the chimneys as people stirred for a new day. Time to wake up and begin the new day.

            Dapple continued to exert pressure on his sleeve, tugging Ole Mike away from his cabin with short sharp jerks.

            “You want me to come with you?” The old man let the horse lead him away from warmth and security. “Why?”

            The horse let go of his sleeve and whinnied. The sound echoed over the valley, rebounding from the mountainsides. He stamped impatiently.

            Ole Mike shook his head. “I don’t know if I can, but I’ll try. You’ll have to let me find a stump so I can pull myself up. Ain’t young like we was once.”

            He used Dapple’s withers as a walking aid as they headed for the chopping block around the side of the cabin. In the shadows created by the moon that broke through departing clouds, Ole Mike struggled onto Dapple’s back.

            The horse jigged, wanting to be off.

            Ole Mike grabbed a handful of mane and settled as best he could.

            Dapple took off at a full gallop.

                                                                 ***

            “What do you suppose happened?” Cort James asked Sheriff Davies. “I come over this morning to bring him some stuff Mayra wanted him to have, biscuits and such. I found him like this.”

            Sheriff Davies shook his head. “Ain’t no way to tell. Reckon he come out for firewood and his heart gave out.”

            “Suppose that’s it.” Cort swept the area with his hand. “These hoof prints are fresh though.”

            “Yeh. Horse was moving fast, too.” The sheriff shoved his hat back, scratched his head, and reset his hat. “Don’t understand why they just disappear like that.”