The old homestead cabin had leaned against the sky for as long as Dan Horn could remember. But now, thanks to Gil Moyle, it stood upright again. Stiff as a Baptist minister, starched collar and stick up the ass, ready to weather another hundred years of whatever man and God threw at it—providing the world itself held out that long.
Horn’s entire history was tied up in the crookedness of the cabin. But with Moyle having propped it up into the sort of respectability that could only be got by way of a plumb line, level, and carpenter’s square, the world he’d once known had tipped off its axis, horizon teetering up on one end, his life and everything he’d ever loved sliding down the other, off into the blue.
Still, he wanted it back. He wanted it back the way he wanted his youth back. The way he wanted the lost years of his life back. And he was ready to shell out the jack for it, cash on the barrelhead, just like he’d said in his letter.
He rested his arms on the barbed wire fence and spat into the grass, checking the road for the knot of dust that would announce the coming of Moyle’s truck. He hadn’t seen Gil Moyle in thirty years, and would have been content had that number multiplied out into the thousands. But there was no point in bitching anymore. Life dealt you the hand it dealt you, and all you could do was play it.
He scratched his ear and stared at the sheep milling around the cabin’s front door. At least that much hadn’t changed. The little log house might have been wrong, but at least the rest of the place was the way he’d left it. Reaching for the store boughts he’d quit smoking five years ago and finding his pocket empty, he let go a wistful sigh and went on waiting.
The dirt between him and Moyle would never go away. This was understood by both parties. But if sentiment was his particular weakness, money was Moyle’s, and this gave them ample incentive to hammer out a settlement. One that would permit each man to latch onto the thing he wanted most, yet still provide enough leeway that he could go on despising the other from a comfortable distance.
Dark clouds pass, Horn told himself. Blue heavens abide.
In a little while a cloud of dust boiled in the distance, moving along the wagon-rutted range like a lit fuse looking for a powder keg. Horn spied it through a pair of squinting, sun-smarting eyes and straightened up, shifting his weight from one boot to another. Then, so as not to give Gil the satisfaction of catching him in the act of rubber necking, he turned his eyes back to the cabin.
The three-room log house had stood here (or leaned, as the case was) on the mountain for as long as Horn could remember. His granddad had built the place at the turn of the previous century and lived in it right up to the time he went into the veteran’s home in Arizona. It was built of good straight Lodgepole pine, cured six months in troughs of linseed oil, and had been set true on a foundation of red Wyoming granite. Still, within a year of its construction, it had begun to list, set-to on a drunken tilt by a combination of devil winds and Wyoming’s infamous gumbo soil--bentonite as slick and shifty as a lawyer in a four-in-hand necktie.
Horn’s granddad, unlike Gil Moyle, hadn’t minded the cabin’s deformity. Once tilted, the old man never saw fit to right it. Instead he got philosophic, saying that from a distance it gave off a perspective worthy of consideration.
Horn had a scalloped picture of his granddad in his wallet. It was taken before the horseback accident that had crippled the old man, leaving his left leg shorter than his right, and as crooked as the cabin itself. In this photograph, the old man (who wasn’t an old man then, but a strapping young bull aged thirty or so) is shirtless, a pair of black braces holding up his rolled trousers. He wears black brogans on his feet and his fists are laced up in boxing gloves the size of feedbags. The left hand is tucked squarely under his chin, the right angling for the breadbasket of a crouching Basque sheepherder who goes by the name of Johnny Madrid--or so says the dubious ink scrawl on the photograph’s backside—while an audience of raggedy-looking ranch hands looks on, cheering.
“You was one tough sumbitch,” Horn mumbled, talking to the old man’s memory, which had been lingering about all day. “One tough sumbitch for sure.”
The old man had been in his fifties when the horse toppled over on him, busting up his leg like it was fireplace kindling. He used to joke about the accident, but Horn knew it had nearly killed him and that the real laugh had been on Death itself, whose clutches he’d escaped through dumb luck and an unwillingness to go gently into that good night. Sometimes while thumping through the cabin in his wool socks, his granddad would stop what he was doing and look at the tilted reflection of himself in the mirror and bust out in a whisky-bar laugh and boast that the fall had left him one part human, one part Sidehill Hodang. A creature whose uneven legs made tramping around a mountain as natural as the Texas two-step, shorter leg on the inside of the trail always keeping things even-steven.
When Moyle’ vehicle turned off the dirt road and clacked along over the loose rocks up through the scraggly wheatgrass toward the fence line, Horn stayed where he was, pretending not to notice. The vehicle rolled to a stop behind him, engine whining, pistons thrumming, and once shut down, chugged a few times and died, the air afterward ticking with the sound of hoppers jumping in the sun.
This was it. The worst of it, he told himself. Once they got past the sharpie handshakes and not-so-furtive sizing up of one other’s broken down bodies--each trying to gauge who’d gotten the worst of the last thirty years while both knowing it was Horn--they could get on with business.
A door creaked open, and boots hit the ground. But the voice that followed on their heels was not the one he’d been expecting.
Despite himself—or rather, despite his hope of appearing unshakable—Horn swung round at the familiar utterance of his name, and when he did his face went as gray and pale as a rain cloud.
The first thing that struck him was the car. Its yellow hood shining like an egg yolk in the sun. The second was the woman standing beside it, smiling like a billboard.
She beamed. “Dan Horn?”
Brenda Moyle was a small woman, slim and muscular with a bun of silver hair punched up under a fancy, broad-brimmed straw hat. She wore tight-fitting cords that made her look like a woman half her age, and she gave off the clear impression she was not only used to being noticed, but admired.
It was her, all right, though it took a moment for Horn’s mind and eyes to come to agreement on the matter.
“Well, don’t just stand there like some goddamned orphan,” she squealed, throwing open her arms. “Git over her and git hugged on.”
Horn stood there, the past screaming up inside him like wind through a canyon. Feelings swirling and scattering in a bedeviled mess. For a moment he thought he might keel over of a heart attack--just like his granddad had done in that soldiers home down in Tucson—but when his nerves settled, he was still there. Breathing.
She closed the door and leaned against the car’s polished quarter panel, looking nothing like the girl he’d fallen in love with and married all those long years ago. The smile was the same. It hadn’t lost a smidgen of wattage. But the rest—the belt with the silver conches, the high-dollar snakeskin boots, the fancy makeup—it made her look as if she’d spent her days arranging flowers in the drawing room and balancing teacups on her knees at the ladies society.
Horn tried to move, but his boots had turned to stone. No matter. Brenda, never one to wait, seized the advantage. “I had to see you Dan,” she said, stomping over and throwing her arms around him, a lariat of perfume cinching down around his shoulders. “I just had to. I know you’re probly still mad at me, but damnit, we’re too old now for grudges.”
Horn had never considered there might be a timetable attached to the lifespan of festering resentments. And while happy for Brenda that her personal misgivings had been laid to rest, he still felt entitled to his own grudges, old and cobwebbed, or not. Especially since he hadn’t been as fortunate as her and Gil, who were stocked up good on the one true salve for any ailment God or man threw in your path: money.
He scratched for something to say, but couldn’t find the words. The only thing that came out of his stupefied mouth was, “I was expectin Gil.”
She released him from the ropelike grip of her arms and clamped her hands on her hips, giving him a good up and down with her cold blue eyes. “Well,” she said, going remotely sad at the sight of him. “You got me instead. What do you think about that?”
He didn’t know what to say, exactly. She’d been his wife less than three months when she ran off with Moyle, and his eyes still stung when he recalled the day he’d come home and found the note on top of the icebox saying she’d pulled out. That she loved him—would always love him--but that Gil could do for her in ways that he’d never be able.
His eyes returned to the cabin. He looked at the graying timbers with a banker’s remorse, tallying up all he’d lost in the break up. His granddad had liked Brenda. Gotten on well with her, in fact. But he’d have tied Horn to a post and hidestrapped him if he’d ever found out he’d lost the spread over a piece of ass. That was the only good thing about the old man’s dying like he did. Better the blood clot got him than bad news about his ranch.
“Don’t mean to be unneighborly,” he said now with a pained squint. “But I got some engagements in town. If Gil’s gonna be a spell—“
She stopped him with a smile and a sad little shake of the head. “What’s your hurry, Dan? It’s been thirty years. Anything wrong with killin a little time together? Days move fast enough without our chasin em along.”
He said nothing.
She moved in beside him, comfortable as ever, and gazed out at the white teeth of the Absaroka, hazy in the distance. “Pretty view.” She paused, thoughtfully. Head angled so he couldn’t see her face. “World treatin you all right?”
He closed his eyes against a bitter-tasting lie. “Cain’t complain.” When she turned to him, he forced a half-baked smile. “Still kickin anyways.”
She lowered her eyes a little and offered a nod at the frayed cuff on his pearl-buttoned shirt.
“They got somethin can fix that you know.”
“Oh, yeah?” He spoke out of politeness more than anything else, pretending to give the damage proper consideration.
“Yeah,” she said. “It’s called a wife.”
His face puckered. The lines in his forehead bent as if under a toilsome weight. “Yeah, well.” He cleared his throat. “Had me one a those once. They ain’t all that reliable.”
Horn had been boots over buckles in love with Brenda, and her unexpected leaving had dealt him a blow from which he’d never recovered. He’d never blamed her for running off with Gil—Moyle had money enough to turn any girl’s head—but he did blame her for being greedy, and for helping to see to it he lost the deed to the land and the cabin in the divorce settlement.
“See Gil done some work on the place.” He raised his chin.
He nodded, dragging his eyes from the atrocity without saying more, and lifted a weary finger in the direction of the car. “Nice lookin buggy. You done all right for yerself.”
Brenda glanced at the yellow vehicle, smiled from under the mottled shade of her straw hat and, as if she hadn’t ever thought of it quite that way, said, “Gil’s good at makin money.”
Horn snorted. Tell me somethin I don’t know, he thought, remembering how he’d had his eyes opened to Gil’s moneymaking talents first hand, back when he’d had his property snatched out from under him in that courtroom in Casper. It was like, for a while, he had a hole in his pocket, and the best parts of his life just kept falling through it into Gil’s greedy mitts.
They stood there a while, him and Brenda, neither saying a word. And in the silence that passed between them Horn became aware of the sun. The heat crawling up his skin like a snake. He wished, vaguely, that Gil would come along, ridiculous as that sounded, and save him from himself. But the mountain was quiet. The wagon road deserted.
“Come on,” Brenda said, putting her hand over his arm. “Let’s us go have a look. I expect you’d like to see the place up close again.”
Horn offered no objection. There were gates on the property now. Barbed wire where none had ever been before. And if the inhospitable fence-work didn’t give you a clear enough picture of who you who you were dealing with, all you had to do was take a good gander at the asinine “grave” Gil had erected near the main gate. A stony cairn fashioned out of river rock, dressed up with a wooden headstone whose epitaph read: THE LORD FORGIVES TRESPASSERS, BUT GIL MOYLE DON’T.
Horn eyed the weathered old Tony Lamas poking out from the bottom of the rock heap like the tattered carcass of some long-dead animal, toes (or what was left of them, anyway) pointing toward Paradise. He might have wished it was Gil under that mound of stone, but he knew all too well the difference between God’s Plans and his own. Sooner or later, everybody got what was coming to him.
Brenda opened the gate, and Horn followed her in, closing it afterward by hitching the wire loop over the main post.
“How’s Cripple Creek?”
He slid a suspicious glance her way, but said nothing.
“I seen the postmark.”
He looked ahead to the scattering woolies, hooves clacking on the stones, coats smeared with dust and sheep shit, and though he figured she didn’t really give a good goddamn, he told her exactly how it was. “It ain’t Vegas, darlin.”
She glanced away, toward the mountains. Smiling, vaguely. Or maybe it just seemed that way.
“Nothing wrong workin for a gamin operation--if that’s what you’re doin, Dan. Junior college in Casper teaches classes in it. Talk about how it’s a real good career. ”
Horn had nothing to say to that either.
“Has to be better’n buckin bales,” she threw in. “Don’t it?”
He grumbled, suppressing a remark he knew she wouldn’t have taken kindly given the charitable nature of the inquiry. But he’d loved ranching. It was in his blood, and when it wasn’t his to do with anymore, he’d gone anemic from the loss of it. The cancer wasn’t killing him, he’d liked to have said to her. The past was.
They walked along through the grass and stones. Brenda stopped in front of the cabin and released his arm. Standing in the shade of the log wall, she raised her hand to her hatbrim and said, “So, what is it, Dan? What brings you back here after all this time?”
“This here’s my home.”
She lowered her hand. “It stopped bein your home thirty years ago.”
“I never intended to part with it.”
“But you did.”
He nodded his tacit agreement at the outward reasonableness of the statement. “Parted with a lot of things, Brenda. Only thing was, I wasn’t given no selection in the matter.” He narrowed his eyes. Looked past her shoulder and pointed to an outcrop of red rock near a twisted patch of sage. At the foot of the stone, a swath of lush green grass spread out like a stain across the ground. “Spring’s still runnin, I see.”
The feelings that had lain sleeping inside him for three decades had come awake again. First with a yawn, then with a startled, snuffling grunt, and finally, with a flash of teeth. He’d worked in the casinos for twenty years socking away what cash he could to buy the place back, and he wasn’t in the mood to talk about it anymore. He only wanted to settle up. Reclaim the deed then live out his days in peace. As close to his granddad’s memory as time and circumstance would allow.
“Well,” he said. “May as well quit beatin around the bush. I expect Gil told you what I’m after. I want my cabin back. That’s as straightforward as I can make it. I got cash and I wanna talk turkey.” He looked down, scraping at the dust with the edge of his boot. “You all can git rich off me twice, I reckon. That’s just how much of a fool I am.”
Brenda didn’t sigh, exactly, when he said this. But the look on her face suggested she might, if given the proper encouragement. She removed her hat and her hair tumbled to her shoulders, spilling down in cool silver waves. She laid the hat on the weather-beaten bench outside the door, then raised her face to the clouds and closed her eyes. “You know, Dan,” she said in something close to a whisper, “Gil don’t care for you.”
Horn nodded, figuring fair enough. He didn’t care for Gil, either. But that didn’t have any bearing on the deal he was fixing to make. “What’ll he take for it?” he said, running his hand over the weatherworn logs. “Got any idea?”
He stepped up through the door and looked at the rafters where the roof had had been repaired. New ribs of Lodgepole pine. New shingles.
“He don’t talk business with me, Dan,” she said, stepping into the cabin behind him, the expensive straw hat she’d been wearing now dangling from her painted fingers. “He’s a regular cigar-store Indian when it comes to money.”
Horn wasn’t listening.
Aside from the effort of straightening the walls, Gil hadn’t sunk much work or money into the place, and for that he was grateful. The fewer the improvements, the fewer the reasons to haggle. “Cain’t be worth more’n a few thousand--tops,” he said, bending to look out the window that faced north toward Tensleep. “An that’s bein generous. But I’ll give em whatever he thinks is fair.”
“He don’t trust you, neither, Dan.”
“Don’t trust me?” Horn raised up and turned to her, head cocked curiously to one side.
Though insulted, Horn was also mildly flattered. Most people up here took him for simple—especially after he’d found himself hoodwinked out of what had been the jewel in his granddad’s thorny crown.
“Never had but one dealin with the man,” he said, “and that was thirty years ago.” He removed his hat and passed his hand over his tin-colored hair. “Far as I remember, he come out on top.”
Brenda approached him now, her boots raising groans from the floorboards. She put her hand back on his arm. “Gil thinks you know something about this cabin he don’t. He thinks cause you want it there must be something about it worth ownin.”
“There ain’t nothin to this cabin but memories, Brenda.”
“I know that. But Gil don’t. That’s why he’s being such a tough old nut about it.”
Horn turned, puzzled at her choice of words.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, he ain’t gonna sell this place. Not now, not ever.”
The world stopped when she said this. Pulled up and stood there, huffing like a man who’d run up against a brick wall. He knew he couldn’t of heard her right because Gil had told him otherwise. That they’d work a deal.
He pulled out her husband’s letter and fanned the air with it. It had been folded in two, and was flattened and wrinkled from riding in his hip pocket. “That ain’t what this here says.”
Brenda looked away, shyly. “He didn’t write that, Dan.”
“What do you mean, he didn’t write it?”
“I mean he didn’t write it.”
“Then who did?”
He stood there, wordless. Emptied of anything to say. Of all the cruel deceptions Brenda had ever played on him, this might have chalked itself up as the worst. But he bit back his anger. Plugging his fists into his pockets and letting his eyes fall to the dirt, he curled back his lips and asked her why.
“Cause I wanted to see you again.”
“Old times sake.”
Horn hunched his shoulders like a man standing in a bitter rain. “Only old times I’m interested in is the ones you never wanted. Ones that got to do with that there cabin.” He nudged his chin in the direction of the log edifice. “I need to talk to Gil, Brenda. This here’s man’s discussion. I come a long way to make a offer on the place, and you ain’t in no position to bargain with me.”
“Everything that’s his is mine.”
Not quite, Horn thought, giving her hell in glance. Not quite. Courts’ll set you straight on that real quick, darlin. Believe you me.
He stared at her fancy clothes, the well-tended look of her face and skin. The way she carried herself. She wasn’t the helpless little cub he’d fawned over and lost all those years ago. She’d grown teeth and claws.
“I come here to deal, Brenda.”
“Me, too, Dan.”
If it hadn’t cost him his job and two days travel to get here, he’d have tipped his hat, climbed back into his pickup and told her to go to hell. But he was stuck. Stuck with the sight of the old man’s cabin, reformed, and stuck with her, his one-time wife, who was looking at him now with the same hungry eyes she’d brought to their wedding bed.
“This here ain’t no game, Brenda. There ain’t gonna be no second go-round for me. I’m down to the clothes on my back and the change in my pocket.” He didn’t tell her about the sickness. He would have died before he did that. All he wanted was a fair shake on the property, and a chance to live out the rest of his days in quietude. “I want the cabin back, Brenda. That’s the long and short of it. I got no mind for anythin else.”
Brenda said nothing. She just stared at him.
“I never had the guts to tell the old man I lost you and the cabin both,” he said, chinking in the gap of silence between them with the last bit of personal information he was willing to part with. “He died down there in Arizona, not knowing. I reckon he thought things was safe in my hands.”
The difficulty of this admission nearly undid him. The confession, a long time in coming, snaked back and bit him in the heart, leaving his eyes welling in their sockets. He raised his fist to his mouth and coughed, trying to disguise the break in his voice, then lowered his head and bit hard against his lip.
Brenda turned away and brought the straw hat to her bosom, clutching it with both hands. “Gil never seen the letter you sent, Dan. I took it from the postbox and never showed it to him. But I talked to him on my own after I read it. I asked him flat out to give it up. Sell it to you. But he said no.”
She came flat out with it. “Cause he knows I don’t love him no more.”
Horn’s lips parted, but no word passed them.
Brenda looked up, taking a step forward, reaching for his hand. But he edged away before their fingers could touch. “Truth is, I ain’t sure I ever loved him, Dan. I ain’t sure I didn’t make the mistake of my life walkin out on you. Told him so, too. That’s part a why he won’t let go a the place.”
Horn stood fixed, unable to move. Unable to talk. He looked at the plank floor under his boots, then up at the woman who’d once been his wife. The girl who’d turned her back on him for what he didn’t have, and who’d now returned for what she’d thrown away. He felt sick. Dizzy. And a flame in his guts worked its way through his veins, setting fire to his brain.
He turned his back to her, eyes escaping through the window, to the mountains, his mind filling with a delirious rage.
“Dan, I’m sorry. Sorry for everything.”
He couldn’t speak. He couldn’t think. He could only stand there.
“Dan? Won’t you talk to me? Please?”
She tugged at his sleeve, but it did no good. He was out of his head with fever. He understood, now, what his grandfather had suffered after breaking his leg, coming up short in a bad fall. He knew what it felt like to be maimed. Whittled down by something that was smaller than you, and left to live with the humiliating deformities it had caused. If he’d inherited the old man’s grit along with his blood, he would have driven into town this very moment and called Gil Moyle out. Busted him up for what he’d done. He’d have drug him up here by his short hairs, and banged his fat head against the cabin wall until it was crooked again. Until history was back on the side it belonged.
# # #
"Cabin Fever" first appeared in The Santa Clara Review.