Western Short Story
Duke Dunfrey came to the highest point on the hill, after a full day’s ride, always headed west, and was flabbergasted at the view leaping at him, the evening sun slipping down between one cliff face and a hill stacked with green trees, every color and shape blending into the place for which he had been searching for more than a year. He’d been a driven man, on horseback.
A pack mule idled on a rope as the pair of animals rested, and the rider gloried in this new view.
Dunfrey, for your information, was not a gunman on the run, though he wore a pair of pistols in his gun belt, and a rifle protruded from its scabbard on the saddle, none of these firearms strange to him. More than a few on-lookers, for sure, had noted his comfort in the saddle, his upright appearance showing at a glance a wiry looseness, a readiness, as though he was on duty, a warrior without doubt, even with a pack mule loaded with bulging baggage.
He spoke to both animals, with soft words and a pat on the neck for the big black, even as he checked out the timber stand behind them which they had just passed through, “We made it, boys, all the way. Now you’ll get some rest while I go to work.” He released the packs of materials from the horse and the mule on one spot he had selected, carried from the last stop in a town due east a week or more.
Aloud he said, as if seeking judgment or possibility, “There has to be a town or two more west of here with a store for supplies when we need them. We’ll stretch out for a few days, old boys.” He patted the horse again, yanked at the mule’s lead rope. The horse answered, the mule didn’t.
For several days, Dunfrey chopped down trees slim enough for hauling, strong enough for a new cabin on the cap of the hill. The tree trunks were clipped of limbs and out-growths and hauled to the top of the rise. The pile of logs grew daily, until he was satisfied with the current quantity, their future usage; the cabin only needing cover, not charm. The sun was bright, the air carried a slightly dry essence in small drafts of green sap odor. The man’s comfort, despite his new labors, was marked as special in the face of his circumstances. That night, beside a campfire, he wrote on two pieces of paper, one as a list of needs, the other, in large printing, “Property of Duke Dunfrey, owner of this hill.” One note he tucked in his pocket, the other he attached to the pile of logs
A half day’s ride further west, brought him to Oliver Harry’s General Store, in Torry Hills, Montana. “You the General?” he asked the man behind the counter.
“Me as well as anybody with no higher rank. Pleased to meet a new stranger.” His hand was offered. My name’s Dud Cornfeld.
“Name’s Duke Dunfrey and I’m claiming a hill back east aways.”
“Which hill is that? What can you see from there?” Cornfeld asked.
Dunfrey described both the view and his feelings of first sight.
“I know that place,” the storekeeper said, “real nice. You put up a marker?”
“I did.” replied Dunfrey, “with a pile of logs for my new cabin and a note saying which is what, meaning what’s mine is mine and nobody else can claims it, that good Earth of mine.”
“I’d advise a hard marker the first chance you get, We got some folks around who’d rather steal than work.” He nodded slightly at two men, heads cocked in their direction, intent on display.
“They best be armed,” Dunfrey let hang in the air for any lazy listeners including the two men with ears twisted in listening, faces without expressions, yet standing memorable with the harsh facial cuts of old testimony. A hard-looking lot they were.
Dunfrey spoke clearly, as if he was at a podium or the alter; “What man creates, no creature may put asunder,” the paraphrase ripe and rich with meaning. Now the man was fully marked; a reader, not afraid to speak his mind, armed, declared for what he was.
He stayed the night in a back room of the store, courtesy of Cornfeld, and started his return trip before the storekeeper was awake. In that ride back, he was not overly concerned about the two men, but was able to recall their faces easy enough, an alert if he ever felt one.
“Well, I’ll be,” he uttered, as he cleared the edge of the forest where he spent days working, and saw the two men standing at the top of the hill.
“Well, well, gents, I can’t say I’m surprised to see you here,” yet his gun hand was loose at his side, both his horse’s reins. and the mule’s leader in his left hand.
One of them answered quickly, “We just had to see for ourselves what you said about the view back there in the store. It is real special. When you build your cabin, there won’t be anything like it around here.”
“Meaning,” thought Dunfrey, “when it’s all done, we’ll walk in and take it for our own place.” He was confident of that conclusion.
The construction took all his time, along with the gathering of more logs. The cabin soon began to show its simplicity and its grace, and as it did, it grew in high favor of his estimation.
And that of distant on-lookers, the envious pair who wanted a home of their own without working very hard for it, as did this new man on the mountain.
Came the evening he lit the first fire in the cabin, smoke signaling a kind on conception in the air coming with the first threat of new weather, colder weather, comfort and long rest at hand for him. His stock checked, meat on the hoof in the nearby forest, dry meat saved for special meals, eggs for the reaching it seemed, and his late evenings realizing that there would e company coming sooner than later to seize his property, lock, stock and cabin, a place of winter glory for mountain character.
He felt that it would come at night, him asleep after a tough day, the two animals under cover in an attachment built against one wall of the cabin/
Ready for the onslaught, was he, just waiting for the intuition to strike with its warning. He could not remember how long the inner voice came to him at odd hours, how much trust and belief came with it, taking its own time.
Dunfrey must have known it would be sleeplessness that made the moment of declaration. And so it was, sleep evading him, the fire tossing light glares from its flames and causing minute shadows, that the telling came, the words unannounced but there in him, behind his ears, in the back of his mind.
The horse nickered once. The mule was silent, as Duke Dunfrey rolled out of his blanket, already half dressed, and put on his boots, winter jacket for a possible long night, gun belt about his waist, the dark sombrero atop his head.
With a chunk of wood added to the fire for his return welcome, a rifle in one hand, Duke Dunfrey slipped out of his cabin by a movable slot into the stall attacked to the cabin, slipped alongside the woodpile stacked at one end, and entered shadows that the clusters of stars could not fully penetrate. He had figured on the men’s attack, coming from both sides of the cabin, and going at them one at a time was the best route, as long as they hadn’t enlisted help. He struck that possibility from his thinking: they’d not think of sharing new gains, if such gains came to be: His property would be their property and nobody else’s.
He loved the glory of the stars overhead, the cooler wind in the trees below the cabin, realized the visual glory might throw him off-stride, and returned to the business at hand.
He adjusted his eyes to the night.
He saw, near the end of the woodpile, the large shadow of a man and pictured his face, a face marked with battle’s or war’s savagery carved across one cheek and into the corner of his mouth where it created a perpetual sneer. He fired once at the huge shadow, saw it disappear from sight without a sound, not even a gurgle in the throat. No ground sounds came to his listening: one man down and out of it. Lost life always carries sorrow to someone someplace. Consigned death comes in its own time. It is never avoidable.
“Hunky,” a gruff voice said in the night from the other side of the cabin, “Did you get him?”
Dunfrey said nothing, waiting for realization to settle in the mind of the second man, though silence itself is often answer enough, proof enough.
The stars continued to shine, the silence stayed put, a cool wind came almost a whistle as it touched Duke Dunfrey on the back of his neck.
The shadow of the second man moved slightly in place.