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Western Short Story - The Quest, Chapter One.
In the early morning hours, it was at least ten below zero outside the small cabin. Chancy Dolan poked his head out from under his blankets and gazed sourly at the cast iron stove where he had banked a good fire the night before. The chill in the room told him that the fire was all but out.
His Uncle Charlie and his father had founded the Rafter Double D, and as his father’s only child, he had inherited his father’s part of the ranch when he had died of consumption. But although he was half-owner, he still deferred to his Uncle Charlie, out of respect for the old man, and also out of love. He knew that love was mutual, so when his Uncle asked him to scout the high country for stray stock, he consented, although he was sure they had all descended to lower pastures by now. He was being tested for a manly attitude and accepting responsibilities, and he knew it.
He eyed the cold wood stove one more time, and then suddenly threw off the covers and dashed to the wood rack. Shivering in his long-johns and bare feet, he grabbed several slim chunks and turned to the stove. Grabbing some pine splints, he stirred the ashes and gathered the remaining hot coals into a pile. He laid the pine splints on top, and began to softly blow the coals into a red heat. He was soon rewarded with a small yellow flame, so he added additional kindling, and then a few larger chunks. Satisfied that the fire was set, he ran back to the warmth of his blankets and waited. Soon the fire was crackling, and some warmth returned to the tight cabin.
The stable was a well constructed lean-to attached to the rear of the cabin, and built around the stones of the chimney. If Chancy was warm, his horses were also warm. Both had hay in the feedbox, so Chancy burrowed deeper into his blankets. Just a few more minutes, he thought. Wait for the fire to warm the cabin.
Outside, the snow was two feet deep, with drifts three times that high. To the west, ominous gray clouds were building, promising more winter to come. Somewhere a wolf howled its complaints, and Chancy gathered his blankets closer. He would never admit it to Uncle Charlie, but he loved this lonely life. He had all a man could want…a snug, warm shelter, food, water, and several books on a shelf on the south wall. Chancy Dolan was content.
The cabin was situated on a bench, tucked in between two massive pines, and overlooking another stand on the downhill side of a small clearing. From there, the mountain sloped down to a hanging valley, some five hundred below, and a prime summer graze.
A few feet from the backside of the cabin was a sheer bluff, rising nearly a thousand feet, straight up, and above the tree line. Chancy had climbed up there once, and was awed by the rocky, barren desolation. There were a few stunted and gnarled pines clinging grimly to cracks in the granite, and several patches of primitive lichen. He found a weathered, but beautifully shaped stone ax head, and wondered about its ancient owner. He also found a spear head.
A small curl of steam issued from the spout of the coffeepot as Chancy dressed. He took a chunk of cured ham out of the larder and carved off two thick slices, laying them in the cast iron fry pan and setting it next to the coffeepot. He poured his first cup of coffee and walked to the window, where he unlatched the wooden cover and lifted it.
The morning was bright and the mountain air was crisp and clean. At this altitude, there was no dust or haze to dull the air and he could see for enormous distances. Normal air contamination makes faraway objects like mountains look blue and faded, allowing an observer to accurately judge distances, but here, distant objects barely faded at all in the clear air.
The cold air flowing in the open window nipped at the tip of his nose, and Chancy was about to close it when something moving on the valley floor far below caught his eye. At first, he thought it might be a beef he had missed, but it was far too small. As he watched, the small speck seemed to lurch through the deep snow and then stop again. At last, he decided that it was a man, and that he was in trouble. He sighed, and took the frying pan off the stove, reaching for his boots.
The horses were mountain bred, and eager to get out of the small stable. Chancy saddled both and then mounted the gray, who crow-hopped a few times to iron out the kinks and warm up. The black followed suit out of pure joy, and then both settled down. The gray snorted an apology to his rider, and they started down the slope.