Western Short Story
Cross on the Hill, Hawk in the Sky
Tom Sheehan

Western Short Story

Bang! And the masked bandit fired from the saddle just as Harry Bantry reached down on the stagecoach boot to grab his rifle. The driver, Jim Foster, tasted Harry Bantry’s blood as it spurted on his face; blood brothers forever was the first thought that hit him. A better brother he could not have chosen, but cold before he knew it. The only other memory of that sad day was the cry of the hawk as it rolled over on a thermal edge high above them, marking the place forever, that limitless and phantom space in the western sky. The sound stayed with Foster as if it was a monument of sorts, the cry as mournful as a late evening bugle call brought back from his 7th Cavalry days. He imagined the quivering lips of the bugler playing “Retreat.”

If he ever did anything, it was to listen to himself think, which, even in hurry-up, was part of his long day, and much of his long nights.

Whenever he rode by the lone grave on top of Gladden Hill, the cross sitting pale in the morning light, he could see old Harry Bantry sitting beside him on the front seat of the stagecoach on the day it happened, his face full of the life that once bubbled in him. Three times now he had set a new cross in place, each time remembering with stark clarity how Bantry had taken the bullet that he believed was meant for him, the driver of the coach, the captain of the prairie schooner. The three years had fled like driven tumbleweed, bouncing along in jumps and spurts as if time could not be measured; him driving the stagecoach, Harry lingering around Gladden Hill until Kingdom come.

Not without all the echoes

Each time it all came back with the sound of the shot, and then the faint, mysterious echo on the wind or the slightest breath of wind, half-heard, half-hidden, half understood:, Bantry saying, “Get ‘im, Jim.”

Leaving the station at Fairmont on this new morning, the temperature exactly like that memorable day, the shadows leaving the valley with the same speed as the sun crested every hilltop, he knew that other dawn as the station master said, “Three years ago this month, wornt it, Jimbo? Feels just like it, don’t it, Jimbo?” like always answering his own questions. “If you was to remember, it was a day like this, wornt it? Can’t you ‘member that smiley face old Harry kept agrinnin’ with, can’t you? Like yesterday, wornt it, if you was to ‘member it, eh, Jimbo?”

The newest shotgun rider, Josh Logan, only three rides under his belt, shook his head and said, “Man mutters a lot, don’t he?” He looked back over his shoulder as they left the station proper, the thin curl of smoke rising from the little house on the flat meadow snuggled into the valley of Grogan Pass, Idaho’s morning sitting flat on his face. “Mutterin’s the least part of talk, I allus said.”

Foster, for the three years since Harry had died, kept looking for something he had forgotten, something from that day; something besides the blood on his face, Harry getting cold in a hurry, the hawk turning over in the sky, how the wind touched his face that other morning when they set out.

All this time he knew there was a piece of information that he had known, had sensed, and had forgotten. No matter how many times he had tried, he could not bring it back. He could not see it, or smell it, or hear it. But it was there; of that he was sure. And Harry kept poking at him in one way or another to find it. “Get ‘im, Jim,” he had said. “Get ‘im, Jim.” It was like the day he was sworn into the army; duty was on him, all swift and powerful, enveloping him, to do whatever it was that it wanted him to do.

Oh, how he struggled again this morning, reaching, searching, hoping to find the elusive.

And he never knew it would be the insensitive new shotgun rider who would spring it up out of him, but it was all wondrous, how he sat mute at the reins, not hearing the shotgun talk or the horses’ hooves beating their swift and staccato tattoo on the hard, dry ground of the road running for hours beside the half-green and half-stone mountain, and the coyote yelping out his wily dominion in a yet-shadowed valley where the sun hesitated in its visit and the darkness of night had not completely let go its hold, for peccaries ran apace and the wolves watched with practiced eyes, and deeper in the valley, in among the scattered upheaval and toss of rocks and trees bent over by the ages, an old Indian, almost old as time he believed, watched back down the trail for some white man to catch up to him and learn what he had learned long before they had come here, where the mountains rose to the moon and the prairie grass ran off to the mountains and the great waters and the tepee of Mahwahtopa himself, for he was to pass on the lessons of the hawk and the wolf and the coyote and the peccary, if only they would listen to him as they sat the proud mounts that leveled mountains and breasted formidable rivers and forced great herds to go where they wanted them to go into such deep maze-like defiles and wadis and gross canyons that they never came out again, not on this side and not on the other side, wherever that was where the growths came and taught you their names from the sides of the half-green mountains, like yucca and manzanita and agave and mesquite and pinon pine and juniper and arrow weed and bear grass and ocotillo and Douglas fir and ponderosa pine, all in such a music of names and uses and needs to be satisfied because the whole good Earth itself becomes the ultimate kettle and pot and pan and oven for sustenance, if they would stop to not only hear him but listen to him with a tuned ear, for their lives would so depend on what had already been learned by other men, up the wide paths from the Yucatan and down from the ice bridges in the north before the huge ships came from afar, from the places where thunder and lightning were issued and the very winds themselves.

Survival is knowledge, it all said to him, and bringing what you have known all the way along with you in journeys and travels wherever, as even he went now on this hard, dry road in view of those very same mountains, with the knowledge that was always his even though he now struggled to bring it all back from whence it had gone.

Something left over from that day he became Harry Bantry’s blood brother.

The road came back to him, and the horses’ hooves and the quiet sky spread like a camp blanket, and just as comfortable as he looked for a hawk, a crow, and then changed his squint to seek a dot in the sky, a verdin, a wren, something so insignificant he could forget it in a hurry, something that would take his mind onto another ride. He squeezed his eyes to a slit, and Logan was staring at him.

“What you looking at, Josh?”

“I’m lookin’ tryin’ to see what you’re lookin’ for. Must be hard to see nothin’. I don’t see nothin’ out there.” He swung his traversing his hand across the quiet sky, and slumped his shoulders to show he was perplexed. “Beats me to some kind of hollerin’ if I let it.”

He was a good looking kid and Foster liked him in spite of some shortcomings, which we all have he would have said if asked. The youngster’s body language was straightforward and Foster acknowledged the fact by nodding his head at an angle, then he said, “I always have something on my mind besides the reins in my hands. Keeps the body in place, like riding and shooting at the same time, and you don’t even realize one is different from the other.”

In a second Foster was back looking at the road, listening to the hooves in their steady music as if drums were beating behind the horses or in the backs of their heads, the dust almost catching up to the coach moving swiftly on the dry bed of the road, the tension in the reins reading like a constant signal in his hands, knowing that the slightest yank might be understood by the lead horse shining in new sunlight that sat on his rump the way a chunk of broken glass catches sunrays in random fits, knowing all the time he had heard something from young Logan that had not yet registered its meaning in his mind and he knew he was again at that point of departure when either his mind takes over his body fully or his body tells his mind to shut up and pay attention to the business at hand, which for that moment and that hour and that day was getting this coach to that point down the road and into one sweet valley where sweetness came in a big mug as clear as a spring waterfall off the face of a cliff, and the knowledge of that sweetness came recovered in his throat the way he’d know a slice of peach at the end of a long day on the saddle and under the sun.

But young Logan was talking again. What had he said that had penetrated his mind, only to get lost in the mud he was sure at that moment was packed in there? He didn’t think he had shut down his mind and had only let it slip by as unrecognized at the moment it was said. He thought about memory again, which brought him back to the smell of blood and the sound of the shot that Harry had caught in the worst place. He let a bit of slack slip onto the reins, let the lead black have a bit of temporary freedom, as if he could run away from the sound, the weight at his leathers no more than feathers in the driver’s hands

“Until you was to catch one in the belly, or in your shootin’ arm. Saw a gent once, high in his saddle, catch a stray round and he fell like a rock off’n a porch roof.” He looked at the sky again. Twisting his head, shielding his eyes with one hand even if he believed there was nothing out there, and continued. “You sure mix me up sometimes, Jim. I thought you was lookin’ to see if you could see a hawk. I gotta tell you, I love to see them the way they roll over in the sky sometimes, free and easy as eatin’ cooked beans at nightfall, like there’s nothin’ at all to it, just ride the wind like we ride them horses put in front of us, us leanin’ on the whip or twistin’ the reins on ‘em.”

“I like to see the hawks, too,” Foster replied, “but they can be awful mean when they want to. Saw one grab a jack rabbit once and couldn’t lift him up off the ground so he just about tore him in half so he could get a good portion back to the nest and the young ones. I stayed while he was gone about 15 minutes and he came back and took the rest in one more big chunk. One good hunter, that bird.”

The hoof beats continued under them, the road continued ahead of them, the sky continued above them, and the mountain beside them, peaked with white wonder, taller than all that other silence in the world, continued alongside them as they rode along. Foster swore softly to himself, shaking his body in a rough manner, realizing that he could fall asleep in a second, could be hypnotized by his surroundings, the scene rolling by, the sound of the music filling the air, the hoof beats relentlessly synchronized, and him trying to beat up the dust in his mind where something was hidden from him.

Finally, as if he had snapped out of some memory complex, he heard Logan, his voice reverting almost back to his adolescent voice, say, “We was at a picnic once, tail end of a shivaree, and we were at the river, a whole bunch of us, and Linus Schroeber, a real joker kind of a guy, always good for a laugh, wore always a mustache stiffer than a brush and hair over his ears like it was a pelt, put a rabbit skin on his head and started dancin’ around. Wham, a hawk came out of nowhere, sky or tree or cloud I don’t know where, and ripped those meat-hook talons at that skin and almost got old Linus in the neck area where the real blood is. Scared the hell out of all us.” He shook his head, laughed a bit, and said, “Old Linus carries that scar right now, at least last time I saw him down river at Chatsville a few years back when they had the turkey shoot, and that scar runs clear across his ear and plumb onto his neck and lucky it didn’t kill him one doc told him.”

In one mad rush it all came back to Foster, that day the single shot spurted Harry Bantry’s blood all over him, and the masked bandit, the killer shooter, turning sideways in the saddle and the scar on his neck becoming visible for that one second again, as it had before. And it spoke to him; knew he had seen that scar some place, on some man he had seen in a saloon, perhaps drinking right at the bar with him, tossing one down at the end of a dusty day and a dusty ride, the grit of sand in his clothes and on his hair stronger than dust, at a card table in a forgotten saloon trying to thumb the ace of spades just one countable time, at some way station on his coach route saddling a horse or leathering a mule, moving past him in the twilight coming down like mist outside the livery or, finally perhaps, stepping up on the fender into the darkness of the coach, into the dim part of his mind. The scar would be a good 8 or 9 inches long and might have killed another man, it looked so red and vicious. Foster remembered looking away so the man would not think he was staring at him, picking him for spectacle. Where was that? In what place he might have been a hundred times, or once, the day unknown, the season, the year? When Foster turned around the man had disappeared. He must have because he had never seen him again, but he was darn sure now that the scar on the killer was the same scar on the man who seemed to have moved out of his life. There could not be two of them, lest there were two stories of two men who had lived past two serious events. He’d not sum up the odds of that happening.

Young Logan, looking at the sky, searching out a hawk, really oblivious of what was happening around him, was talking a streak again, but Foster did not hear him, for now, at last, with an image fixed in his head, he could begin to look, could study every face he’d come across, at every stop and way station of his route along the Mogollons, beside the river, across the endless prairie with its endless trail, as the words kept riding on the air, “Get ‘im, Jim. Get ‘im, Jim.”

The exacted promise, he knew, was fervent, was an oath.

And there’d be a new cross for Harry on the hill, next trip around.