Monday, November 30, 2020

The Fearless Man

     [A short story for you today. I was about to start on Part 2 of Resisting the Heist when I stumbled upon an image that inspired what follows. I hope you’ll enjoy it. -- FWP]

     “Is that...real?”
     The reporter stared up at the mounted grizzly bear as if he expected it to attack at any moment. It was poised in exactly that stance.
     Dunlop nodded. “Unfortunately, yes. I had to kill him, but I regretted the necessity. So I wanted a memento of him...of his ferocity in defense of what he thought of as his territory.”
     The reporter frowned. “You think an animal can have a sense of property ownership?”
     “Oh, beyond all question. For grizzlies out here in the northwest, it’s a matter of survival. A grizzly needs a rather large area, exclusive to him, to hunt and forage if he’s to survive. His dietary requirements are as enormous as he is. They’re the largest land animals in North America, you know.”
     “Yeah.” The beast was easily fifteen feet tall on its pedestal. In life it must have weighed over a thousand pounds. Yet it had fallen to a man...the same man who had toppled a government single-handed.
     “You were extraordinarily lucky to be armed with a weapon that would stop him, let alone kill him. And to be quick enough to stop him before he could harm you.”
     Dunlop shook his head. “Luck had nothing to do with it, sir. I knew I was in grizzly country. I came prepared and I stayed alert. I knew I’d have to establish my claim of these lands against the wildlife, not just at the registry office. That came before the contractors stuck the first shovel into the dirt.”
     “And that did it,” the reporter said, still gazing up at the remains of the giant predator.
     “For the moment,” Dunlop said. “Not in perpetuity. I’ve had to ward off a number of lesser creatures since then.”
     “Did you have to kill any of them?”
     “Only one. A wolf. I thought about having him stuffed and mounted, but I decided against it. I don’t want my retirement home to look like a hunter’s trophy room.”
     “Retirement home.” The reporter shook his head. “I can see why you’ve been described as fearless.”
     Dunlop winced. “I hope that won’t play a part in your story. It’s the furthest thing from the truth. The fearless man is the ultimate fool, and I’d like to think I’m not a fool.”
     “Then why did you settle yourself in an area roamed by huge, dangerous land animals, and moreover that’s miles from any sources of assistance?”
     “I had reasons,” Dunlop said, “but it certainly wasn’t to prove that I’m fearless.” He rose from his seat. “Let’s go out back. There’s something I’d like to show you.”
     Dunlop led the reporter to the back door and out into the expanse surrounding his home. The elevation at which Dunlop had built his home made the distance one could see enormous. Apart from Dunlop’s house few human artifacts were visible, and the scale made them appear insignificant. The view had been high among his reasons for choosing the site for his homestead.
     The reporter’s gaze arrowed directly to the glow from the pit.
     “You left a fire going?”
     Dunlop chuckled. “Not exactly. Come have a look.”
     Six large, irregular granite boulders ringed a roughly circular aperture about four feet in diameter. They compelled the reporter to prop himself on the lowest of them, crawl half his body length forward, and stretch to his limit to peer down into the inferno they limned. The fiery glow heated his face considerably for the few seconds he could bear to gaze into it. He pulled back with a mutter and a head shake.
     “What is it, Mr. Dunlop?”
     “One of my real reasons for planting myself here.” Dunlop indicated a group of Adirondack chairs near the rim of the pit, waved the reporter into one, and seated himself in another. “I ‘left the fire going,’ as you put it, because no man alive could possibly put it out. It’s been going for billions of years. It’s the orifice of a volcano. The smallest one known to exist in North America.”
     The reporter paled. “You chose to build your...retirement home within a hundred yards of the open mouth of a volcano? Good God, why?
     Dunlop smiled. “Because it terrifies me.”
     The reporter gaped open-mouthed at him.
     “We think we’re a really big deal, we humans,” Dunlop said. “We posture as the lords of creation, utterly the masters of the world and all that’s in it. But it’s not so. It’s never been so, and like as not it never will be. Nature contains entities and forces Man cannot possibly control. We can’t do a blessed thing about volcanoes, or earthquakes, or hurricanes—and those are just the really dramatic examples. Do you remember the Maunder Minimum, thirty years back?”
     The reporter nodded.
     “It killed a lot of people. Americans weren’t prepared for that steep a fall in global temperatures. With all our technology and sources of fuel, we still lost thousands to the cold. The British suffered orders of magnitude worse, because of the quenching of the Gulf Stream and the prevailing northerly winds. It was only good fortune that it was no worse than it was. If it had lasted a couple of years longer, it could have wiped Man and all the other land fauna off the face of the Earth. Yet all that happened was that the Sun chose to go just a little dim for a couple of years...and we could do nothing about it.”
     “I’ve planted myself here as a reminder. You can prepare for a lot of things, arm and armor and provision yourself against a large range of threats, but sooner or later something will get you. It might be as dramatic as a volcanic eruption, or as mundane as an infectious disease, or as...stupid as some trivial thing you didn’t prepare for because you thought it couldn’t possibly affect you. That volcano might be the death of me. I’ve prepared for an eruption to the best of my ability, but if it were swift enough and violent enough, it could take my life without my even knowing it had done so.” He smiled without humor. “Call it a reminder to stay humble.”
     “You felt you needed it?”
     Dunlop nodded. “With all the valorization I received after I took down the Harris Administration, the need was too great not to do something about it.” He swept an arm around him. “I’ve prepared for a lot of things. I’m well supplied with all the necessities. My cellars contain food and clothing enough to sustain me for a century. I have an independent source of heat and electrical power. Civilization could collapse and I’d still be able to totter along for two or three decades. But sooner or later, something will get me. And like as not it will be something I could never have imagined, much less prepared for.”
     The reporter’s smile turned ugly. “Or perhaps something you thought you were fully prepared for.” He rose, pulled a handgun from a hip pocket, made to level it at Dunlop—and gasped, eyes wide and mouth slack, and fell prone onto the rocky Wyoming soil.
     “Another one-man show,” Dunlop muttered. “They never learn. I suppose I should hope they never will.” He returned the armgun to its place of concealment under his sleeve, rose, and flipped the assassin onto his back with his foot. The dart had struck him in the hollow of his throat just below his Adam’s-apple. The massive dose of curare had paralyzed him instantaneously. Should Dunlop choose to leave him lying there, asphyxiation would claim his life in no more than three minutes.
     “Which is the kinder death, I wonder?” Dunlop muttered. “He probably intended to shoot me in the head. I’d have felt no pain worth mentioning. I suppose I should reciprocate, but it’s a long walk back to the house for a gun.”
     He bent, hoisted the assassin into a shoulder carry, toted him to the rim of the fire pit and heaved him in. The glow dimmed only briefly and minutely as the body disappeared into the magma below. Dunlop stood there a moment longer, thinking about the others who had come to avenge President Harris and the enforcers, cat’s-paws, and sycophants who had followed her into a disgraced oblivion.
     “I wonder if any of them felt any fear.”
     Presently he shrugged and returned to the house.


Copyright © 2020 Francis W. Porretto. All Rights Reserved Worldwide.


Tracy Coyle said...

Nice cabin! Good story for around the fire!

Especially if the visitors warrant the a warning!

ligneus said...

Lovely story!

Micro said...

Now that was indeed enjoyable!

Linda Fox said...

I LIKE this! Please continue the story.

Michael Stone said...

Very satisfying!

George True said...

Liked the story very much. does one man take down an illigitimate Commie administration? Inquiring minds would really like to know.

Cap'n Jan said...

This story is exactly what I need now... But I want to read the backstory and even more about the future.

On the other hand, I also loved, really loved, 'Sweet Things' and think it is perfect just as it is.