Chapter 16

 

                                              Man down

 

            After one month living on Nyati Ranch, Nderitu felt like he had been there all his life. The sun rose at 6am every morning and with it the spirit of the place. The dew covered landscape looked white at the first cock’s crow and green within an hour. The cows mowed and the dogs barked, and it became harder to tell when one day ended and another began.

All the men were trained to ride horses, a basic necessity in the life of a rancher. There were few roads on the landscape and the large acres made it impossible to scout the land on foot. To Kamandu's chagrin, the horse lessons were conducted by the scar-faced foreman Mr. Tegu, who claimed to have ridden since he was ten years old. He gave each man a cowboy hat courtesy of Mr. Ferguson and it did wonders keeping the sun off the men’s faces. Mr. Tegu never smiled as he taught the men to mount, position their legs, balance, and hold the reins properly; but Nderitu was quick to note that the man was never rude.

            "Most important lesson is to know how to stop the horse," Mr. Tegu said. "You pull the reigns back, otherwise you will be in for a long ride. Them horses take time to warm up to people, but when they do, they are your friend forever."

            Riding a horse for Nderitu had always been something of a dream. His horse's name was Volcano, and he liked the animal. He felt exhilirated as he used his legs to steer the golden brown Arabic horse through the hayfields on the east side of the ranch. His butt cheeks hurt but the pain would go away, he was told.

            “The horse can sense your every emotion,” the foreman explained. “If you relax the horse will relax. You will spend many days together and get used to each other’s smell, voice and appearance. Your horse will miss you when you are away.”

            The hay on the land rose a foot above the ground and looked more like weeds – a deep green with purple butterflies and bees floating above it. The sprinklers poured water for hours, flooding the whole plantation and making it hard for the horses to move. "How do you know the hay is ready for harvest?" Patrick asked the foreman. All four men including the foreman were touring the land on horseback. The correct attire for riding a horse as explained by the Mr. Tegu was jeans and boots with heels to keep the foot from sliding around in the stirrup.

            Mr. Tegu looked back at Patrick like it was a silly question. "The proper stage of maturity for hay is when the leaves on the grass are fully developed. The hay is cut, dried, and stored in haystacks for animal fodder." There was something smooth and admirable about the way the foreman rode. "Sometimes we do cattle drives and let the animals graze in the fields, but when the rains don't come, we have to feed them with hay."

            Beyond the hayfields were the grasslands and then wilderness; a long stretch of land covered with trees and hills. One could ride on these lands for days and meet all kinds of animals. Looking back from the hay fields, Mr. Ferguson's house looked tiny, the lake shimmering under the sun in front of it.

            Over lunch break, the men watched a video about wildlife. Nderitu was fascinated by a video of a cheetah chasing after a gazelle. The cheetah crept through the long savannah grassland and closed the distance. Every time the gazelle lifted its head, the cheetah stopped dead on its tracks. But when the cheetah was close enough, it exploded into action, twisting and turning in pursuit until it brought its prey down.

            There was no explanation or narration after the video was over. There would be more videos to watch in future and the whole idea was to teach the men about the wild animals and bring an understanding that would make them to be as one with nature.

            The men worked on different shifts, with Nderitu and Silas starting on the day shift and Kamandu and Patrick taking the night. They worked a one week rotation and switched places, so everybody could take a turn at working the graveyard shift. The security job involved patrolling on horseback through the ranch and making sure the staffing units and rancher's home were not broken into. The men carried knives, flashlights and whistles, and all were hard core fighters. The two rangers who manned the gate helped by patrolling the forest in the morning in search of poachers. Kamandu's men patrolled the ranch at night but never went into the forest.

            Nderitu spend his days riding around the ranch, observing, watching the activities and burning through cigarettes. He liked to ride his horse through the grazing cows. He felt very much at home having grown up in a village. The animals that really fascinated him though were the horses on the ranch and every day the foreman would let them loose along with the cows. The horses loved to run and stayed close to each other for comfort.

Nderitu slept in the mornings and other times in the afternoons depending on how he felt. And when he was not asleep, he would ride his horse through the ranch and find something to do.

            “Good morning Nderitu,” the women would great him and Nderitu would tip his cowboy hat at them.

            “Good morning ladies.”

            They got to see him every other day and got used to his presence and that of Kamandu’s men.

            “What happened to your dreadlocks?” The children asked, running after his horse. “All Mau Mau have long hair, don’t they?”

            Nderitu laughed with the children. “I cut my hair when I came from the forest,” he explained. He liked that the natives had embraced the ranch as their home. Surrounded by plantations, wooden fences and gates, this was not about land ownership anymore, it was about making a life – the spirit of family love captured in the eyes of the innocent.

            Once in a while Nderitu would jump down from his horse and join the men in mending a fence or rounding up cattle. All the men were Kikuyu natives from the villages around Amka Town. Most of them like Nderitu didn’t have much education but were dedicated to whatever specialty of job they were hired to do. Nderitu learned a lot about ranching from these men. Even though Mr. Ferguson was regarded as an outsider, the workers were grateful to him for the job that allowed them to take care of their families. These men embodied the very definition of character in that they were able to see Mr. Ferguson as the beating heart of the ranch, and not just another white man in Africa.

            There was Mugo, Kimathi, Njoroge, Kamau... It would take a while to get the names of the workers right, but Mugo stood out from the group because he talked a lot. To the sound of swinging hammers and glistened faces, Mugo talked politics, sports and also gave relationship tips.

            "Those pancakes this morning were great," Kamau, one of the workers said, referring to the employees' restaurant that also served as a bar at night. The restaurant was located in the same place as the employees’ houses and served breakfast, lunch and supper.

            "Let me tell you something," the man Mugo said, using his hands to illustrate. "There's this kiosk in Amka Town on Bilka Street that serves the best pancakes in the whole world. You will never make that statement again after you taste them."

            Mugo wore reading glasses when working. He was slightly shorter than Nderitu and looked like a man fighting to keep his weight down. He talked a lot, but he worked hard on the ranch and played his part. The men didn't argue with Mugo because he had an answer for everything, and so they let him be.

            "When is your wife expecting a baby?" Nderitu asked, responding to the little he knew about the men.

            "In a few days, Mugo said, pushing the glasses up, "And he will have the best father in the whole world. I will make sure that he gets everything that I didn't get when I was a baby."

            "That's every parents’ wish," Nderitu said. "And I believe you can do it."

            Mugo grinned and wiped sweat from his face. "I know I will. I have to succeed with him."

            Nderitu liked Mugo but he didn't think they could be good friends. Mugo was not a good listener and had a way of making everything about himself. Mugo was 'There's this guy I used to know' kind of friend.

            The staffing houses Kamandu and his men lived in were right next to Mr. Ferguson's house for security purpose. The houses for the majority of the other workers were located half a mile away on the far side of the ranch in what looked like a cluster of bungalows. The staffing houses were made of concrete blocks in a classroom-like structure with families living in one and two-bedroomed houses, depending on rank and position. Nderitu approximated around twenty workers living on the ranch including cooks, cleaners, herders, slaughter-house workers and farm boys. Often small children could be seen playing soccer outside and chasing after one another while their parent's toiled around the ranch.

            There were so many things that Nderitu loved about his apartment. There was a cooking stove that used paraffin, an inbuilt toilet, a shower with hot water, and electricity, which reflected a house built by a white man. Toilets in Amka Town were built outside the homes. Nderitu's apartment included a bedroom, a kitchen, a bathroom and an amazing view of the land. All his life he had slept on a spring bed, and it took a while getting used to a wooden one that didn’t squeak. Most mornings, he sat by the window and enjoyed watching the sparrows chasing each other through the long grass.

            Life in the ranch started every day at 4am with men meeting inside the workshop next to the slaughter-house, where they drank coffee and solved the problems of the world. The foreman Mr. Tegu would then issue instructions and assign jobs before dispersing them. The men would equip themselves with shovels, rakes, hammers and wheelbarrows, and head out to their respective jobs. The first break would be at 10am for tea, and then lunch at midday.

            Cattle ranching was not an eight to five job as Nderitu discovered. It was really a dawn to dusk work, and even in the middle of the night one could get out of bed if something was bothering the animals. Hired hands fed the cattle, put out hay and worked on maintaining fences, tractors, trucks and farm equipment. There was also the difficult task of rounding up the animals, dehorning, castrating, vaccinating them and making sure they stayed healthy. Then there were the cow dogs and horses that needed care and feeding, making for a lot of work for the men.

            One Wednesday night, Kamandu took up the foreman's offer and joined the ranch men in the bar to play cards. Kamandu didn't really want to go but he needed to know everything about the ranch and Mr. Tegu had been there for over ten years. For Nderitu, it was really the first time he got a close look at the staffing houses and realized how settled-in the people were. There was a shop full of kitchen supplies and a bar that also sold food for the single men who couldn't cook.

            The time was 9pm when the men made themselves comfortable inside the bar which was a small, dark room, choked with smoke. The men had been paid their salaries and beer flowed like a river. Feeling right at home, Nderitu lit a cigarette and puffed out clouds from his mouth. It felt good being able to put up one's feet and just be. After living in the ranch for a month, it felt good being able to release some steam. He thought about Claire and wondered what she was doing, and how she was doing. They had only known each other for a few days but it felt like he had known her for a long time. Here in the ranch, he was surrounded by so many people, and yet he felt alone. He missed her and hoped to see her soon. Kamandu was working to hire two more men to help with the schedule rotation. This way, everybody would have one weekend off in a month to get out of the ranch and be normal.

            "I have to admit," Mr. Tegu said as he massaged the scar on his face. "A whole month without a single break-in is a record for this ranch. You men sure know what you are doing."

            "And no poaching has taken place either," a man with a crooked nose added from across the table. "The rangers were talking about it and wondering how you did it."

            Next to Nderitu, a short man shuffled the cards and passed them around. Each man got five cards.

            “My name is Lucas,” the man said to Nderitu. “You men think you are hard core, don’t you? I spent 5 years at Kamiti Prison. We used to eat men like you for lunch.”

            Nderitu’s grin turned into a smile. “How did you survive in there?”

            “It wasn’t easy,” the man said solemnly. “They had us two in a cell and ten per shower. The weak ones were pushed until they broke, and then their manhood was taken away from them.”

            Kamandu took a sip at his beer and ignored the short man talking to Nderitu. "The first month of security on the ranch is the easiest. It gets ugly after this," he said.

            There was silence around the table. Tegu studied his cards, leaned back and looked straight at Kamandu. "What do you mean by that?"

            Kamandu studied the men around the table. There were four of them, hard looking workers who knew everything about the ranch. All the break-ins and dead wildlife, one of these men knew something and Kamandu had to weigh his words carefully.

            "Take the Masaai people and the lions for example," Kamandu said as he placed a diamond number four card on the pile of cards in the middle of the table. "The lions do their best to stay away from the humans, right? But once in a while, drought hits and the lions get really hungry. And you know what happens?" Kamandu leaned forward and shifted his gaze from one man to the next.

            "The lions attack the people?" the man with a crooked nose blurted.

            Kamandu shook his head. "No. The lions finds a vulnerable spot ... a weakness and then attack."

            "The lions attacks the livestock," Mr. Tegu said and Kamandu nodded.

            "And sometimes the lions gets away," Kamandu continued. "And sometimes... they don't." He grinned.

            The men in the room watched him and saw the glim in his eyes. A few of them pulled back and shuddered. Kamandu lit up at the thought of trouble and the men in the room feared him for it.

            Smoke bellowed from Mr. Tegu's cigarette as he placed an ace card on top of the pile. "Spades, cards!" he said, signaling that he was about to win the game.

            Kamandu dropped a card and picked up another. Nderitu dropped an ace and called for hearts. By the time the round got back to the foreman, diamond cards were on top and Mr. Tegu easily won the game by dropping a five diamond card.

            "You were bluffing?" Kamandu asked the foreman with a frown.

            "It's called a poker face," Mr. Tegu corrected. "We can go all night and I will still beat you."

            "I think you are cheating." Kamandu bunched up a fist and stood up.

            The foreman stood up slowly and sighed. The two big men stared into each other’s eyes for a long pause. "Do you want to go a round with me?" Mr. Tegu asked. "I see the look in your eye every day, and I know you don't like me."

            "I don't like you," Kamandu confirmed, almost spitting out the words. "You are hiding something and I will find it." The collision of the two opposing forces was inevitable.

            The foreman chuckled. "Footprints in the sand big man. That's all you will find. This is my ranch and I don't like the way you are throwing your weight around here like you own the place."

            Nderitu stood up and spoke firmly. "Hey, let's just play cards and have a beer, shall we? We don't have to love each other but I'm sure we can find a way to co-exist and be civil."

            The foreman turned his head like a snake and looked at Nderitu. "I didn't know you could talk. The way you follow your boss around like a lap dog, I didn't think you had a tongue."

            Nderitu's eyes hardened and his voice came out deadly. "Don't push me!" he growled. "I'm not the nice one!"

            Everybody in the room froze and stared at Nderitu. Mr. Tegu opened his mouth as though to say something but no words came out. Kamandu grinned from ear to ear and seemed to enjoy the moment.

            Nderitu hadn't said much since arriving at the ranch. He had done his job and then some; helping with the cattle and mending fences. He had looked like the normal friendly neighbour and the men had labelled him as a nice guy. With one uproar he changed everyone's perspective. The silence in the room was very loud and the ranch men finally understood why he was Kamandu's right hand man. In one sentence, Nderitu made his presence known and even the foreman flinched. It wasn't just the words. It was everything about his demeanor; the way he took a step forward towards the foreman, the way his words reflected in his eyes.

            "I'm getting some fresh air," Nderitu suddenly said and walked out of the bar.

            It was dark outside and a little chilly. Nderitu leaned against the wall and closed his eyes. He hated this side of him - the part he couldn't control. As a boy, he couldn't remember being like that, but after living in the forest with the Mau Mau, raw emotions hidden deep within seemed to surface quickly. This anger suited his job well but it isolated him from the general population and a chance at a normal life.

            Nderitu opened his eyes and sighed. One month away from the outside world. One month away from Claire it had been. One month away from the possibility of love and a warm conversation. With Claire he was calm and never angry. She made him feel normal.

Nderitu walked around the building, and tried to shake his thoughts to the present. He untied his brown stallion, mounted and trotted away from the bar.

            "Hi Volcano," he whispered. "You feel like a walk?"

            To get back to his house, he would have to go through fields of hay. He could not go back to his house and leave his men alone, but he did not feel like going back into the bar. His nerves were on the edge and a nice ride was what he needed to clear his head. Nderitu reached into his coat pocket and searched for a cigarette.

            Noises in the trees ahead suddenly made him look up. With so many animals on the ranch, it could possibly be anything from a cow to a roaming dog. Nderitu lit the cigarette and took in a long puff. “Come on Volcano.” He steered the big horse through the fields of hay and smoked while he rode.

Far away, the lights in Mr. Ferguson's house lit the night and made a spectacular glow under a crescent moon. The rancher's home was well lit with security lights on the front and back yard.

            Another sound in the night caught his attention and Nderitu perked his ears. He thought it was a wild hog digging up the ground but his instincts told him it was not. Moving easily through the hay fields, he led the horse towards the dark trees, his eyes scanning every direction. The hay fields were dark but it got scary dark when he entered the trees. As a security man on the ranch, he was always prepared with a flashlight amongst other night patrol tools. Kamandu had advised the men not to go into the forest at night but in a moment of miscalculation, Nderitu didn’t care.

Volcano moved swiftly between the trees and Nderitu's bright flashlight picked out the rabbits bouncing in the bushes. He ignored the sound of the familiar and listened for that which was out of place. 

            An engine in the distance! The horse stomped the ground uneasily. "Easy Volcano," Nderitu whispered into the horse's ear.

            The sound of the engine was moving away. It sounded faint, and sometimes died in the wind. Nderitu kicked the horse and galloped towards the sound. Tree branches slapped against his face and a few leaves got stuck in his mouth. He spat, zigzagged around trees and sped the horse forward. It took a good ten minute galloping through trees before he finally heard the rumble of the powerful engine. The brown Stallone came around some thick bushes and shortly after Nderitu saw the rear lights of the vehicle. It was the last thing he remembered. A tree branch slapped him on the chest and dropped him from his horse. He hit the ground hard on his back and lay stunned for a very long time. When he came too, all was dark and quiet, and the horse was nowhere to be seen.

            Nderitu groaned and touched his chest. Nothing felt broken and his fall had been cushioned by prickly bushes. He stood up slowly, testing every limb to make sure he was okay. He was able to stand and walk, and he was glad for that. The moon helped him find a sense of direction and Nderitu staggered back towards the ranch. It felt darker in the trees, the forest noises magnified in his ears. His body was hurt and weak, and he prayed not to meet any wild animals that would view him as easy prey. After every few steps, Nderitu turned off his flashlight and leaned against a tree trunk to catch his breath. The blow to his chest seemed to have affected his lungs, and even a tough man like himself knew he needed help. Nderitu pushed himself off the tree and kept moving. It took hours before he saw the familiar glow of civilization. The light inside the bar was still on and so he headed for it.

            "Nderitu?" A voice called in surprise.

            Nderitu staggered into the bar, stood on shaky legs for a second before collapsing on the floor. Kamandu, Silas and Patrick ran over and helped him get comfortable.

            "Nderitu? What happened?" Kamandu asked in a worried voice.

            Nderitu lay still and searched for strength, his chest rising and falling with every breath that he took. "P..poachers," he finally said. "I saw poachers." It was all he could say before his strength ran out and darkness consumed him.

 

 

News

Off to AFRICA

 

My book A Whisper in the Jungle has been picked by a publishing company and approved by the board. It has been scheduled for release soon.

 

The music is all around you, all you have to do is listen

 

Contact

 

mrobertto@yahoo.com

Without God, what are we? What do we have? What is life...