Just a short story
My canoe was beached on the shore of the river, belly up and dry. The hull was scratched and dull with fissures running along the gunwales like the lines on my face. Nearly ten years I have lived in the wilderness, feeding off of the river in solitude. After my wife left, I built a canoe out of cedar and drifted along the river until I finally settled among the canyon hills. I am now an old man who knows fish better than people. The only neighbors I have are the bears and another old man who writes when he hasn’t got the light to fish. Occasionally supply rafts will float by and I’ll take the trouble to make an exchange, but I don’t need their company. All I need is my canoe.
As I was oiling the canoe’s gunwale, the last thing I thought to hear was the frustrated neigh of a horse. But there it was. I looked up with my eyes squinted against the glare of the sun and saw, to my wonder, a horse attempting to scale the canyon on the opposite bank. A man and what must have been fifty extra pounds of supplies sat atop the creature. He kicked violently at the beast as it scrambled up the rocky shelf and shouted for the horse to press on. “Heya!” he barked so his voice echoed off the silent hills. “Heya! Ahead!”
The stranger didn’t seem to see me as I shook my head in criticism. It was amusing watching him as he tried to maintain control over the horse. The horse was weary and I could see even across the distance of the river that it was shimmering with sweat. The poor creature began to inch backwards against the man’s will. The fool should have known that riding is no way to travel along the river. At least he was smart enough to wear a wide-brimmed hat to avoid the sun.
I turned my attention back to my canoe and wiped the sweat from my sun-blistered brow. I took my bit of polishing paper and began to sand the old, scratched varnish until my calloused hands became numb. When I looked up again, I realized the stranger had abandoned his effort in trying to ascend the canyon shelf and instead climbed down to the river bank. We were now facing each other across the slow churning of the river. The still of the water seemed to reflect our gaze as he spun the horse around with a tight grip on the reigns.
The stranger tipped his hat to me in a fashion I could only assume was in a manner of some forced greeting before he dismounted his horse. I immediately noticed the rifle slung over his back and the pistol that gleamed silver on his belt. It made me realize that I didn’t have my rifle with me, only a small knife for cleaning fish. He unfastened the supplies and saddle from his horse with careless, jarring motions and threw them to the ground. The boy should have known better than to throw his things near the river where they could be swept away.
The stranger didn’t bother with pleasantries as I continued to work on my canoe. I preferred it that way, as I preferred most human interaction. I had no business to be in his, yet something about him made me look up every so often and glance at his pistol, as if one moment I might find it pointed at me. I watched as he took out a chunk of salted meat from his knapsack and carved it with his knife. He bit the meat off his knife and licked the blade. Although I could not see his eyes, I felt uneasy, as if the stranger were watching me work. As far as I could see, the man’s long face was comprised entirely of an unnatural grin, for the rest of it was hidden beneath the shadow of his hat.
I stood straight and eased the soreness out of my back. The sun was harsh on my neck. As I wiped my hands with a rag, I took the time to study the stranger. Tucked into trousers that were too big for his slender figure was a green shirt embroidered like a lady’s handkerchief. He wore the shirt with his sleeves rolled up, revealing dirt-coated arms that clashed with the richness of his clothes. He seemed to smirk as I took in the rings that adorned his fingers and the beads that hung around his neck. His smile was cold. I wetted by cracked lips and turned my attention back to my work. He may have been a fool, but I mistrusted him no less.
Soon the stranger took off his hat to wet his scalp. For the first time I could see his full face. Below the shaggy mess of dirty blonde hair, the man’s face was long, his skin tanned and leathery from the stress of weather. His nose was like a broken beak. However, his eyes were soft. They had something even more unsettling than the cold eyes that I had expected to see. They were tired, red rimmed eyes, filled with a sorrow I could only pity. His eyes were alarmingly human.
The stranger caught my staring gaze then and nodded to my canoe. “Will it float?” he asked, his voice dry, a mere growl that escaped his throat and managed to somehow cross the river.
The question made me frown. I glanced at my precious canoe, now gleaming with a fresh polish. “Never betrayed me once,” I called back.
At that moment I saw that his eyes had narrowed and the humanness of his stare had vanished. I understood what he wanted, and I felt again the absence of my gun. I knew what he was. A coyote. A hound. A thief. That’s what.
In my mind I saw the eyes of a lone wolf who had once tried to feed from a young buck I had killed. The scrawny creature had the nerve to snarl at me as it circled the carcass- its last hope for survival. It was a pitiful creature. I remembered the dark of the wolf’s desperate eyes fade as a bullet from my gun pierced its neck. The stranger had the eyes of the wolf, and yet he was the one in possession of the gun. His greedy stare was fixed on the canoe as he rested his hand lightly on the glistening pistol. He looked up at my helpless old face and offered me a merciless grin. I knew all he had to do was to draw and pull the trigger.
I stood still as the river, my lifeblood, ran steadily between us. I felt like being caught in an eddy somewhere before a waterfall, and I held my breath, waiting for the fall. As I exhaled, his gaze dropped to that beautiful clear water. The distance between us seemed to grow, and I saw him turn human once more.