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Western Short Story
“Mommy,” 4-year old Billy Baird yelled at midnight for the third night in a row. “I heard the horn again.” An August night hung its heaviness over the ranch house, between mountains in Utah.
Billy’s father Hal rolled over in bed and said, “Hannah, will you get him squared away. I did it last night, but I have corral work all day tomorrow. Would you please?” He patted her on the backside and rolled back where he had been sound asleep, and was soon gone that way again.
Hannah Baird had a blanket wrapped around her as she went to the little room where Billy was whimpering again about hearing horns in the night. It was the third night of hearing the horns and the boy was still restless, she thought.
On the way to him, pausing in the darkness, she heard nothing. Here, at the foot of the Wasatch Range, night was a silence broken only by an owl’s call, a wolf’s howl, the cry of a mountain cat, a horse’s neigh, and the smell of night hot with the weather. The sounds were usual and disturbed nobody beyond the length of their echoes. At the southern end of the range, they could see high peaks from the window in the back of the ranch house.
And Billy, in the last month, had heard an old Ute Indian talking about ghosts that haunted the high range. The Indian had sat at a campfire, talking with Billy’s father who had invited him to share in a range meal.
“The spirits of the dead let us know they are still here. They say that Senawahv, creator of all things, allows them to stay near their descendants. It is a move of justice to the good ones. I hope someday my voice will be heard in the night.”
Hannah mentioned the Indian’s talk, to provide a reason for not worrying.
But Billy came right back at her. “Not voices, Mommy, but a horn. I heard a horn again. Like I did last night.” She surmised he was counting in his pause. “Like the other night too.”
He had never been so imaginative, she thought; sleeping well most every night until the last few nights. In fact, he was a good sleeper from his first days. In his first month he had slept clean through on a few nights, which she and Hal had accepted gratefully.
“Were you sleeping, Billy? Did it wake you up?”
“No, Mommy. I was waiting for the horn. I heard it again, and the wind was blowing, too, very loud.”
“Did the wind keep you awake until midnight?” She wondered about his perception of time.
“I was waiting for the horn. And I heard it.”
“Mommy will sit with you and we’ll listen awhile and then go to sleep.”
He was asleep in a couple of minutes, nestled against his mother.
The next night he cried earlier, and louder, saying he had heard the horn louder than ever.
She held him until he was asleep, and when she tried to cover him for the remainder of the night, she was brought upright on the side of the bed. From a distance she heard it, the sound of a bugle or trumpet cutting through the night air as sharp as a knife, but distant and, she thought, almost holy. Bill ought to hear this, she said as if he could hear her. “Oh, he wouldn’t believe what he was hearing anyway.”
The horn sounded once more, and Billy slept through it all, the angelic face of her son a comfort to her as she wondered about what she had heard. She had, indeed, heard a horn. Billy had heard a horn, on four or five nights. It was eerie.
Hal Baird finished his work on a new corral late in the afternoon and said he had to go to town for more supplies. Hannah and Billy would spend the late afternoon in the kitchen. There was no talk about horns.
Asa Quince, Bountyville’s lone storekeeper, said to Hal Baird and a few other customers, “Did you hear about the army patrol? They got set upon by some renegades up on Graves Hill. Three men got wounded and one man is missing. Nobody’s seen him. They figure they’ll have to get reinforcements before they go looking for his body up there. Man must be dead by now if he was wounded too. That post out there is so small it seems like the army don’t count them at all. I think they send anybody who’s at the end of the trail out here to finish up, them and some plain old losers they’d like to see get lost themselves.”
Baird said, “You sure the army said they had to wait for reinforcements before they’ll go looking for the lost trooper?”
“Right here in front of me, that cavalry captain said it, the one looks like he died last week. He don’t want to go anywhere but home, wherever that could be this side of the grass.” Pausing, thinking of something that came late to mind, he added, “Said something strange, he did. Said what bothered him most was the trooper was his bugler, and missed him at Reveille and Call to Colors and such, like he was homesick.”
Hal Baird, ex-Army of the Potomac, patriot, bristled and said, “That sure ain’t fair what he says. Ought to break their butts looking for a man that did his bit no matter how the upper echelon looks at him. I saw some heroes couldn’t shine their boots, but stood up to be counted when it was time to be counted. You don’t forget them, no matter what they can or can’t do.”
The storekeeper thought that over, nodded, and said, “If I was a sprout again, Hal, I’d be up there looking, damned if I wouldn’t. Chance to do some good before I check out on all this.” The spread of his arms could have said Bountyville, Utah, the USA, the world. His listeners had their pick.
Out in front of the general store within the hour, Baird had a few good pals gathered at the corner of the general store. “We know that country up there better than the army does. All of us have spent long hours chasing down lost cattle, big cats too much on the edge of our herds; we’ve even gone fishing under the falls for the big ones. We ought to give it a chance. Give him one chance, whoever he is. They might not get any reinforcements for a month. If the man is wounded, losing or has lost blood, he won’t last much longer than today or tomorrow or one more day.”
“We don’t even know if the man’s alive, Hal,” one old pard said. “He could have crawled off and died in half a day. Those mountains are tough for anybody.”
Hal looked around, nodded at a thought, and said, “I got something to tell you, but you keep it quiet. My kid Billy has been hearing horns at night, right near midnight, for the last three nights I’d guess. Wake him right out of his sleep, wakes up crying about the horn blowing him awake.”
“You saying what I think you’re saying, Hal, that the missing man, the bugler, is up there someplace blowing the horn, needing help, trying to let us know? Why at midnight? How?”
“I’ve been thinking about that, maybe he does too, the bugler. Who hears such a thing in the day if we are busy at what we do? Or pays attention to it. Too much going on around us. Too much noise. Cows and kids bawling. Horses’ hooves pounding. Wheels turning. Women gabbing. Whatever. At midnight sound carries better, probably goes farther. Maybe he’s only got so much energy left.”
“By gosh, Hal, you got me roped in all the way. If Melba was still here she’d be goin’ with us. One of the things made her the woman she was. That’s special. Damned right I’ll go.”
The others said they’d join in. They planned to leave from Hal’s place just before sun up.
When Baird told Hannah and Billy they were going to look for the horn player, Billy said, “Maybe he can play to bring the birds back when they leave.”He was looking at the bird feeder on a fencepost when he said it. It was his one chore.
Brister Paulie, Hal Baird’s oldest army buddy, brought a surprise … his nephew Phil who carried a bugle on his saddle horn. “Just in case we have to wake the trooper up,” Paulie said, winking at the others. “He don’t play too good but he makes the thing work.”
“Some folks in town think we’re plain daft, Hal” but they don’t laugh none around me when I’m bein’ my best to be hard. But I didn’t tell none of them about the bugle part. That’s just for us.”
Three hours later they were on a high trail going cross Graves Hill. It was an old Indian trail that three of the four men on the rescue trip had traveled before. Paulie’s nephew Phil had never been this far up in the mountains. “Sure is pretty up here,” he said as they rested their horses at one point.
“We ain’t here for pretty, boy,” Paulie said. “Let’s hope we’re doin’ some good for a creature maybe who’s dead already, maybe not.”
They had been an hour on this one stretch of trail worn into Graves Hill for centuries. There was no place to hide that they had seen, if the trooper was hiding from the renegades, wild animals, other visitors if there were such. All the time Hal Baird could see his ranch house down in the valley, thinking of Billy hearing horns, possibly being played from this place, this edge of the mountain, for Graves Hill was indeed a mountain reaching for the sky.
He could tell the men were disappointed that they had not found the trooper. Yet he was somehow sure that the man had to be under cover, protected from the animals that roamed freely in the mountains. He envisioned wolves, cougars, bears, wild peccary that could gore a man to death.
Life, at the outset, was chancy up here, at best.
There had to be cover. If the trooper was dead, they’d never know. If he was alive, they had to give it every shot. On an impulse, he asked Paulie’s nephew to blow on the bugle. “Send something out, see if we get answer. It’s a big place up here and we could look for a hundred years.”
The nephew, with some difficulty, made some noise with the bugle. The sound, not quite musical, bounced off the cliffs and rock peaks all around them, echoed like a streamer in a parade, then died out, faint as faint could be.
Nothing happened. There was no response, no bugle call of any sort from the mountain itself. The silence itself almost died out. An eagle screamed beyond them. A wolf answered the disturbance.
A horse snickered, and then another in answer.
Paulie looked seriously at Baird, shook his head and said, “Nothin’ I can hear. Hope you got better ears than me.” He was shaking his head and tossing his shoulders and moving his arms, all in desperate gestures.
An eagle, from overhead, broadcast its whereabouts.
All the men sat motionless on their horses, as if in prayer or contemplation.
In the absolute silence that followed then, at the end of a heartbeat, of a tonal island found in the ears, a whisper of a horn came to them as if from the face of the cliff opposite them on the trail. It was faint, a pale imitation of a real horn.
“It’s coming from over there,” said Paulie’s nephew, standing in his stirrups, pointing, “but I don’t see any caves there.
Baird swung his mount around and scanned the length of the trail on the near side. “Up there, or down there and it’s bouncing off that other side. Spread out and look, but keep quiet. Tie your mounts off.”
Even as he spoke, the distant, faint sounds came to him. The bugler was alive, but hidden, somewhere on the trail. In a cave, under an overhang, hanging on for dear life.”
Paulie’s nephew Phil, caught up in the drama, blew out a couple of notes, his hands shaking, his eyes wide open as he blew into the bugle again.
There was his echo, and then a faint answer.
Hal Baird, moving as quickly as he could, scoured places on the trail, and then saw the fissure behind a shelf of rock that had slipped off the face of the cliff.
He stuck his head into the darkness. “Are you in here, trooper?” He held his breath.
“Corporal Brogan, sir, and glad you came by. I’ve been wounded, hurting, hungry, but feel as good right now as I’ve ever felt. You wouldn’t have a spare drink on you, would you?”
“A one-time sergeant, here, Corporal, with nothing except warm water in a canteen, but I can promise all you want once we get downhill to my place. What say to that?”
“I’m sure happy I brought my bugle. Is that what brought you up here? We really got scattered by some renegades, and they got me in the leg. I had three days of trail chow with me, and found a leak in the mountain right in here. Got a cup a day out of it. Got me to my bugle at night, thinking it would be heard best then. Scared some animals plain outright other times.”
“My boy Billy, he’s only four, will be happy to meet you, Corporal. He’s the reason we’re up here. The horn scared him silly some nights. When you’re having that drink I promised, you can thank him.
“I’ll play for him, Sarge, but can I do it at high noon?”
“High noon is just about perfect, Corporal,” Baird said. He wished he had a watch.