Western Short Story
It was July of 1869, the day already beset by strange sights and signs, like human bones and animal bones found on the trail aside the hill flanking the wagon train, flesh long-gone to carrion seekers, long-bleached by the sun, and the howls of unseen wolves as if they were stalking each individual. The day had set the table for night, a sensation of anxiety crowding the travelers, alertness stark in all eyes, and all moves precipitated by widened studies of the area about them. These feelings ran through all the folks on the train as they headed west. Dark clouds, seemingly foredoomed, twisted out of other clouds before twilight. And distant thunder shook the ground beneath wagons as they circled at the foot of Wolf Hill. On the cliff-side rise to the top of the hill, odd and weird shadows moved as if coming to life, to spend time looking down on the wagon train, on the threatened campfires if rain came. The lead scout, shortly returned from his outride, said to the wagon master, “It’s clear ahead for the move tomorrow. This place ain’t never treated me none too good, this Wolf Hill, so have ‘em ready for an early start. I’ll be damned well outta here before your coffee’s warm.”
Even under these circumstances, beneath the gathering apprehension, new life had also made a statement. In the deep darkness a girl child was born in one of the wagons, saying life and death, fate and promise, and good and evil, were still at odds, still waged their everlasting war.
To find a name for their new daughter, who was born a flaming redhead, her parents drew letters from the only game they had brought with them from New England in the back of their wagon. The dull metallic container carried a plain brown logo and a legend that said, Word Build. Inside were small tiles with painted letters, four complete sets of the alphabet. The parents had used the word game often to help develop their language use in the new world they had come to, and decided to find the child’s new name within the game. They drew, in turn, the letters a, o, n, a, v, c, and at her mother’s insistence the child’s name became Covana.
The game was never used again in this manner.
Some newborns, as we all know, come into this world unshorn, unheralded, and unwanted. On the other hand, some come into the most luxurious setting of all… into an abundance of love in spite of the hardships surrounding the birth. Wolf Hill, in the midst of a mountain valley of lush growth, presented both a rich and a harsh beginning for Covana Perkus, redhead.
Her father, Wulf Perkus, was from a dark part of Europe where legends and omens loomed continually in the minds of most young people and many of the adults. When as a boy he left his home in a mountain area with his parents, he carried all the area’s legends and omens in his mind. None of them were forgotten and when the lead scout of the wagon train told them, “This place here where your baby got born is called Wolf Hill because the Indians long ago said a wolf stole up a child, so keep your eyes open for any slinkin’ varmints.” He pointed at the foreboding overhang of the escarpment. “Shadows live there. So we’ll move on soon and get out of these here shadows.”
The omens from the past, from the dark center of Europe, were still chasing Wulf Perkus. The name of the hill, the dark shadows high on the rocky face, the ominous look on the scout’s face, told him about the chase. What else he remembered were the messages in some eyes he had seen in the old country, strange men in town, strange actions, stories following them, from school friends, neighbors, other story tellers who would nod their heads and cast knowing looks at the strange men.
But Perkus also recalled his grandfather’s words from far in the past after a fear-filled night of storytelling beside a near-dead campfire: “Who fights the wolf and wins finds himself in heaven.”
He could not shake any of those memories, the bad or the good, but a decision shook itself loose. “Marlen,” he said to his wife, “we will build our house here. Our long journey is done. This will be our new home. We will fight the wolf and Covana will grow in a heavenly place.” She saw more in his eyes than what she heard, and nodded agreement, but said, “This place will make you work harder than life meant you to, but I will too.” She hugged her daughter as though she was a new-found amulet.
When Perkus told the wagon master and the scout they were leaving the train and would build at Wolf Hill, the scout shook his head and said, “Good luck, mister, and watch for them varmints.”
Perkus was a prodigious worker, and their small cabin rose from the ground at the base of Wolf Hill. The garden spread its arms, a barn came the second year, and cows and a few steers the next year. It seemed as though they were in a detached part of the world, so little happened around them except growth of numerous kinds, and a small town coming into being a dozen miles away. Covana was in her fourth year and Wulf Perkus, as usual, carried a rifle everywhere he went, as if it was part of his arm. The wagon train scout had advised him that the sooner he got his hands on a Winchester Model 1866 Rifle, which many called Yellow Boy, he’d be better off. Perkus took the advice seriously and bought one from another wagon before it left. He proved to be an excellent shot with little practice because he did not want to waste ammunition and knew his day with the wolf, the day for the real entrance into heaven, was coming nearer, and he had to be ready.
This morning the sun struck at the shadows on the escarpment, and a few of them did fall away onto the bottom of the cliff. But some hung there as dark banners or streamers. Perkus took note and held the rifle closer as he stood on the small porch of the cabin, under an overhang he’d hung over the door. Covana was babbling inside and Marlen was answering her. Their voices were audible, and then they went away.
His coffee steamed in a mug as a chill hit him, not from the front, but from his backside. A cloud appeared from nowhere, the sun rays suddenly shadowed and thinned, and the silence in the valley became as clear as a breath of air. He waited for an animal to make a sound, like a cow waiting to be milked, or a steer or horse to make demands. Nothing further came from his daughter or wife.
He heard himself say, in a dark declaration, “I am in the eye of the storm.”
That’s when Wulf Perkus heard the howl of a wolf come from just behind the barn, and a quick wind coming from the same direction. The cow bawled as he ran around the barn and a black and gray wolf, of heavy proportion, had a grip on the cow’s neck. Another wolf stood by the fence at attention. Perkus, without hesitation, shot the wolf by the fence, before he shot the wolf with the cow. A third wolf ran right past Perkus as if he wasn’t there. His third shot dropped the wolf twenty yards after the round hit him from the backside. The cow shook her head and made noises in her throat. A big shouldered steer bumped against the fence as if in a butting contest, and Perkus knew he had to settle down his stock before he cleared the carcasses away and buried them outside the fence line.
His wife called from a shuttered window; “You catch that one, Wulf? Show him who’s boss of Wolf Hill?”
“Showed and done, Marlen,” he said, “Showed and done.” For a minor celebration, he fired one round directly into the air, knowing it was a wasted round of ammunition, but it felt good. He believed his war with the wolves was over. And Covana, with the reddest hair ever seen on their side of the Mississippi, ran from the cabin into his arms.
“They’ll know you coming, darling, even if they don’t see you. That hair will light up the darkest places, including Wolf Hill. He promised her a visit to town as soon as they could get away, depending on a neighbor who would keep an eye on the place. It would take some time to arrange. He would never leave his home unattended, fearing the wolf would make a return. He never told Marlen that the wolf came in odd shapes, sometimes in different shapes, and always at a pretense. But he told Covana he would buy her candy goods. “They’re as sweet as you, my flaming redhead.” Where Marlen held her daughter to be an amulet, her father knew her flaming hair kept the wolf at bay much of the time.
As it happened, a young man from town waved at the family as he passed by a few times and finally came to their porch where he had coffee and biscuits and enjoyed Covana’s happy spirits. His name was Tal Willoughby and he brought a broad smile and a noisy banter. Marlen enjoyed his good nature and his doting on her daughter. Perkus kept his feelings, as always, in strict reserve, but assented, after a few visits, that Willoughby was old enough to watch the small spread, and he would take Covana to town while Marlen, finding it difficult to leave her kitchen and not drawn to the clutter of people, would stay at home, at her stove.
Covana and her father were almost into town, when a sudden fear grabbed total control of the man. Parts of old stories leaped at him from dark horizons in the landscape. Once there had been a planned visit to the city in the old country when his father suddenly turned and started to run back toward their home, leaving young Wulf in his wake. The father kept yelling, “Hurry, Wulf, hurry. The demon is at home. He waited until we left the house. He is the terrible one. We must hurry. He is the wolf in sheep’s clothing.”
Young Wulf was terrified, fearing the real wolf, fearing for his mother, and out of breath from chasing his father. The whole scene was opened for him again. He felt the touch of air upon his face, the temperature, the crush working on his heart, the ache running free in his legs.
Now, as a father himself, the fear grabbing him about the safety of his wife and his home, he saw all the old monsters, all the crude shape of distorted animals and ghosts and goblins from the dark leap into his presence. The costumes reappeared, the disguises, the camouflage that desperate and evil creatures can evoke as part of their being. Did they hide in his barn? Had they always been there? Or in the root cellar when he was not looking? He set the horse and carriage at a gallop, with one hand on the reins and one hand holding onto Covana sitting beside him, her eyes caught up in amazement, her hair still red as fire, red as a glorious sunset.
“What, Poppa, what?” She held his hand tightly as the carriage bumped on the rutted road. “What is happening, Poppa?”
“The wolf has come,” Perkus said to his daughter. “He has come to steal from us. Maybe he will try to steal the ranch.”
“But I am not there, Poppa,” she said. It’s not the ranch. He wants to steal me. Momma said so, but I was never afraid.”
“Why are you not afraid of the wolf?”
“He is afraid of my red hair.”
“Who told you that?”
“The woman who comes in the night. The woman in the white dress who sits on the end of my bed and smiles at me. The woman who is not afraid of the wolf from Wolf Hill.”
Perkus had no idea of what was happening around him. They came up a small rise, the house in view, the barn a dark form beside the house where the light in the window suddenly went out. He spurred the horse, afraid he was too late. The carriage tumbled and rumbled and bounced over the road. The howl of a wolf leaped at his ears. The cry shot past his ears as from a cannon.
“He is going now, Poppa,” Covana said. “He is afraid of my red hair.”
They stopped the carriage in a swirl of dust at the front of the house. Perkus screamed out his wife’s name, “Marlen, Marlen, where are you?” There was no answer, but a dark figure broke from the front door and bustled toward the corner of the house.
Perkus saw the figure as the wolf. He fired his rifle directly at it, his eyes telling him he could not miss.
“Marlen,” he yelled again.
The door of the root cellar opened. Marlen stepped up out of the root cellar. “It was that terrible boy,” she said. “He is the real wolf of the hill.”
Perkus made his wife and daughter stay where they were as he went to look for the wolf, or the terrible boy. He had no idea of what he would find.
At the back side of the barn, on the ground, dead as he ever would be, Tal Willoughby lay on the ground with a large red stain, already fully dried, spread across his chest. His young face was seriously darkened with a heavy growth of beard. He, without a single doubt, looked a thousand years old.
Wulf Perkus would bet that he was at least that old. In a way, the Indians knew he was.
Later, after a week of worry, talking to the sheriff and the marshal from the territorial office, seeking information about the young man, nobody in the town or on neighboring spreads had ever heard of Tal Willoughby. It was as if he never existed.
Wulf Perkus finally knew that the young, handsome, pleasant young man was no longer a man of mystery, for sure not anywhere near Wolf Hill. He would not say that about anyplace else on the way west.