Western Short Story
Larry Barfield could not remember the silence being as deep as it now seemed, dawn usually drifting in with bird calls, cattle sounds, horses in the barn ready for a day’s work, or even a ride on one of the trails outbound toward the villages at opposite ends of the valley. Much of it seemed unreal.
But with it came a strange feeling creeping along his back, a shiver loose, a message en route, or was it a word, he wondered, from “On High?”
He listened with care, the second time around, to what came his way; each syllable if spoken, each utter from an animal of the barn or of the corral, each having a language all its own, so specialized, so acute for his attention, notifications he heard each day, knew full well, and mostly understood the reason behind them, or their repetitions.
Something was amiss, he was sure, somewhere in the property, on the property, nearby, trying not to be seen, sneaking about, not much of a real man doing a real thing, but like a coward at work, a sniper, a back-shooter that he could not let off the hook now that such a man was moving on him, making positive in-roads. He had a decided hatred of such creatures, such darkness creepers, such cowards in their way of murder. The status of such men gave him a sickly taste in his stomach, throat and mouth, hitting all the points where taste often made decisions for him, and especially in the dead of night.
He chuckled a bit of humor at that thought, knowing he was on his toes, weapons ready, not asleep in a targeted bunk, the cabin door unlocked, not a stranger in these parts, or at this place, in months on top of months. He realized he was a target with the first sound coming to him as a give-away.
The next alert was a half-smothered cough caught at its announcement. It was abrupt, but knowable, carried no identity, nothing to name it or tame it.
It was a night visitor, a stranger, not one who knew the rifle was at his side and fully loaded, ready to protect body, soul and whatever. He eased his way from the bunk in the cabin, as noiselessly as he could; no springs to squeak, no sudden release of his weight on the solid wood frame of the bunk which could support three people (and had done so on a few nights in the far past).
Nerves, those that he did have, were alive and jumping, talking to him. Making declarations, half-setting decisions in place, fire them immediately or be caught as if unaware.
“Don’t go cheaply,” he said to himself. “You’ve worked for this. Save it, no matter what looms in the dark.” He didn’t want to fire aimlessly, at nothing, at empty space, at guesswork, a shot at nothing in material form would lie out on the prairie until the next kingdom came along in the same manner, in darkness, creeping most likely, nameless for a short time until gunned down, splattered against a wall, sank to his knees, moaned one last time.in this life..
But, again, he heard movement, outside, in the corral where half a dozen horses, unshod yet, were fenced in by single slim poles parallel to the earth, simple enough to hold them in place,
keep them from breaking loose at evil night sounds, his hearing still as good as ever.
His father, less him. two months gone to a bandit or robber of some kind, was killed by such a thief, such an intruder, then mourned over, buried in the front of the cabin, off to one side, a stone, a natural stone, his ever-marker, and his killer, never caught, never seen, hadn’t returned, perhaps not until this night, his prior success bringing him back
And now, he thought, there might be some payback in the wind sweeping across the open plains beyond their small ranch. Opportunity often came to those who waited for revenge, for payback in the first order, the getting-even squeeze on a trigger. The outside sound, somewhat squashed by intention, came anew, a hoarseness near locked in a restrictive throat, a kind of gurgle or gargle held to a limit, darkness still holding the edge, in command of the night, movement, soft shuffles signaling movement every once in a while,
Larry slipped his hand onto a pistol hanging in its holster which hung from the rack beside his cot, ready for business. There were a number of times he resorted to that movement, preparing to defend himself, his property, and all his animals in the counting. The pistol fit his hand with a comfort he felt at the first touch; he was an excellent shot and felt prepared, then, and now, as he had on a number of times, lonely cabins away from much traffic, always attracted attention, drew the thief, the freeloader, the murderer.
“Oh, God,” he prayed, “I hope this is him comes back to get another piece of the pie.” In the darkness, it made him half-chuckle, almost give his position away.
He listened again with meticulous care, trying to pick the exact spot where the sounds originated; definitely this side of the barn, near the left side of the cabin, in the space between two buildings that obviously provided the most cover, the most shadows, the deepest darkness. He’d use the same route if he moved on whatever maneuver was afoot.
He hoped he’d get a look at that face before he hit the dust, so he could measure the man, or half-man, bent on plain return theft and murder, to strike the same place again; if it was worth it the first time, why wouldn’t it be so again?
Larry wasn’t here during the last strike, his less than nimble father holding the fort as best he could, still shot in the back, right between the shoulders, right up close, another sign of the coward. Larry’s fury rose anew, a feeling like none ever felt; the more he thought about his father’s murder, the more his fury leaped through him. Sweat poured over him, came loose of him, filled the air with his own essence of hatred, the taste of it in his mouth.
Then, right in front of him, a star disappeared, then a second star, and a third star, and a whole chunk of evening sky, and the killer was there, right at the cabin door.
He fired at him, unloaded his two pistols at the intruder, at the killer he was sure, at the night figure of plain darkness. Where he wanted to look into his eyes, he heard him hit the floor of the cabin, that vengeful look now long-gone in a matter of seconds, one last gasp emitted, one last breath taken, pain announced, and death followed.
For months, Larry lived on those last moments, and like all fury, ignited and burnt, they parted ways from him, fury outlived, essence on the move, and he never heard a night warning again.