Western Short Story
The two men had stepped from behind the barn with guns drawn and aimed at the family of cowman Jiggs Marion, sitting on the porch of their ranch house. Marion sat beside his wife Merle and their daughter Alva and son Eddie sat on the steps. Alva was nine years old and Eddie was soon to be fourteen.
The men were hatless, wore no gun belts, and blood was evident on the shirts of both men, looking as if they had escaped from prison somewhere in the territory and had a bad run of it.
“Don’t move,” one man said. “All we want is some food and a couple of horses. We won’t hurt anybody if you just do as we say. No tricks. No going for your guns.” He was pointing at Marion’s side arms. “Throw them down, mister. We won’t hurt anybody.”
Jiggs Marion threw his guns on the ground.
His wife said, “I’ll get you some food. It’s still on the table.” She stood up.
“No funny stuff. No tricks,” the talker said again. “We got your kids here.” He looked at Jiggs and said, “And your old man.”
“I’m not stupid, mister, and I’m no gun slinger. I’m a cook. I’ll feed you, but don’t hurt anybody. That won’t help you.” It seemed to say, in a quick change of her tone, “But it sure will hurt you if I have anything to say about it.”
“Go ahead,” the talker said, and added, “get us a couple of sombreros, and a couple of canteens, full ones.”
Eddie stood up and said, “I’ll get the sombreros and the canteens, Mum,” he said. “But they don’t get ‘my’ Stetson.” His voice came haughty, arrogant.
The other man, looking riled a bit, said, “What’s so special about ‘your’ Stetson, kid? You think you’re special? I don’t. Go get me your Stetson.”
Eddie looked a bit shamefaced, as he said, “I have a bird on my hat. It’s mine and it’s special.”
The intruder was rankled and said, “Go get me your damned Stetson, kid, and no funny stuff. Where is it?”
“It’s in my room.”
“You got your own room, huh? Nice stuff, kid. I had my own room, too. In jail.” He laughed loudly, and then said, “Go get it. Remember, I’m lookin’ down the barrel at your kid sister. Don’t be too brave.”
Eddie Marion went and brought back his Stetson. There, on the top, sat a stuffed bird, brown and white and a bit stippled with spots. It did not look ludicrous.
Eddie handed the man his Stetson.
“Damn, kid,” he said in amazement, “I like it. I really like it. It’s kinda classy.” He put it on and said to his companion, “How’s it look on me, Trig? Classy? Think people will remember me in this hat?” He laughed long and loud, and then said, as Mrs. Marion brought food from the kitchen piled across a bread board, “Go get the canteens, kid, with fresh water in them.”
Jiggs Marion, who often had questions about his son’s role in life, did not give off the smile that tempted his whole face as he watched Eddie go toward the well and past the cage sitting at the end of the house. He saw his son lean against the cage.
The folks who knew him best called him Falcon Eddie. He was born on the Three Rivers Ranch in west Texas of parents who raised and drove cattle for a living. His father, Jiggs Marion, was a brawny, tough cowboy who had come out of Arkansas as a young man, at age 19 and rambunctious; his wife Merle, and Falcon Eddie’s mother, was the first girl Jiggs Marion ever knew, and he stole her from the second floor of the Bright Range Saloon in Mount Pleasant, East Texas, on his way west. The posse never caught up to the pair, who made their final escape by floating downstream between two logs, right past the posse camp in early evening. Merle, even before that escape, was in love with the first man who had given her full respect.
Falcon Eddie, without any name for his first three days of life, was given the name Eddie, which was the name of Merle’s brother, Eddie Seibers. Neither one ever saw the other.
The Falcon part of his name came some years later when, to his parents concern, and initial regret, he showed no interest in cattle or ranching. His full attention on falcons came when, as a boy, he saw a falcon dive from the clouds to snare a bird in flight. The speed, accuracy, and daring reduced the lad to awe, wonder and total interest only in falcons.
While other boys his age, about ready to get into working ranks on family spreads, were mostly interested in fast draws and fast horses and quick visits to town, Eddie was enamored of prairie falcons and the occasional peregrine falcons, which now and then came into his view. Prairie Falcons were slimmer and longer-tailed than Peregrine Falcons, and looked to be more active and more aggressive in their hunting.
“I can’t explain it all the way,” Eddie once said to best pal Powell as they sat out on the prairie grass waiting for falcons to dive out of the sun, “but they are so fast that my heart leaps up to meet them. They dive down on other birds like lightning has lit them up. Nothing in the world is as fast as them. Nothing. They are the fastest things in all of creation. One old Indian, from the canyons where the Pueblos are, told me that falcons are messengers from Tinami, god of the heavens, the big chief who sends all his creatures down to us, for however best we can use them.”
Powell said, “What was the name of that Indian? Is he the old one with the long scar down his face, like he was hit with a sword?”
“That’s him. Why? Ykchen is his name.” Eddie said it like he was in the fold of the tribe. “That’s his name in the language.” The words came out as supporting information, as if he was telling a secret.
Powell, understanding they were swapping precious information, said, “My grandfather says he’s the one he’d trust the most because he knows the most secrets and must have earned them … how to tell a cow is sick before he falls down, or a deer or a sheep … or where the bear hides in the snow … or when the big snow is going to come or the wind that makes the sky dark all day. Says he knows all that stuff like it comes to him when he needs it.”
Eddie said, “Where do you think that all comes from?”
Powell pointed overhead, “I bet it comes from the same place your falcons come from, from up there.”
“I knew it the first time,” Eddie said. “It does not let go, like the claws they have, like traps that are as good as steel.”
The two pals had been waiting for hours for such an event at that precise moment happened overhead as a falcon dove out of the sky to snare a bird in straight flight across the prairie running off for miles to the mountains. A clutter of feathers drifted down the way buckshot might tell on a bird hit in flight.
“Where did he come from, Eddie?” Powell said in amazement, looking off to the mountains and then overhead again.
“Not just the sky,” Eddie said, following the drift of feathers. “They don’t live on stars or planets or on the moon.” He pointed to the mountains sitting across the wide prairie and past the great river. “They come from up there. Way up. Some day I’m going up there and catch one or get some eggs from a nest, and then we’ll see what happens. I heard about bird men in far places that have trained falcons to grab things right out of the air. One drummer told my father about falcons, how they sit on a man’s arm and then go fly after something and come back to the man’s arm. Then he puts a hood on their head to keep them quiet, keep them from going after something else, like another bird. He said he could bring a book about them if he ever gets to Chicago or St. Louis again.”
“Do they eat what they kill?”
“They must,” Eddie said. “That’s why they do it. They don’t have turkey shoots like we do, for the fun of it. It’s different with them, the killing. When I get up there and find a nest, I’ll tell you what kind of stuff is left over from their killing meals, if there’s anything left.”
In less than five years, after a dozen trips up into the mountains, Falcon Eddie, becoming an experienced climber as well, came home with two falcon eggs. He’d climbed almost 1200 feet up the face of a cliff and found the scrape or nest of a prairie falcon, with two eggs sitting there, spotted blue-beige eggs that could have knocked him off the cliff with wonder.
“It’s my lucky day,” he said aloud, not knowing the day was not over for him, nor was his luck all used up.
He wrapped the eggs in a soft fabric his mother had given him and placed them in a small wicker basket he’d made from a fishing creel and swung the basket onto his back. On the way down the cliff, and on the ride home, he kept them warm and protected. Some of the information that had come to him about falcons had prepared him for this part of his destiny.
Nothing had prepared him for the joy he experienced taking care of his possessions.
Or for what was coming to him.
At the far edge of a fenced section of the Three Rivers Ranch, he came upon a falcon caught up in the fence wire. More than once he had dreamed of such a happening, hearing such things from old timers who had spent their lives on the plains. The bird was caught for good, and would obviously die there on the wire unless it was retrieved from the hard clutches of the wire.
But the first thing that hit Eddie, being this close for the first time ever to a live falcon, was to study the bird, committing much to memory, finding ways to describe him in a journal he kept on falcons. The upper parts of the tangled bird, which he determined to be a prairie falcon and not a peregrine falcon, were grayish-brown in color, with lighter edges along the back feathers. The long tail was brown and had a white tip, and there was darker barring along the outer tail feathers. The throat and under parts of the falcon were whitish and showed long, brown spots. The top and sides of the head were dark, from what Eddie could see in the bird’s escape attempts. He locked up an image in his mind of the face that had light eyebrows, white cheeks, and a narrow brown mustache above the beak.
Into his journal it would all go.
He wondered if it was the same bird he had seen a number of times on flat wings in stiff, shallow powerful beats, his tail spread, shooting across the prairie chasing squirrels, lizards, prairie dogs and other birds. Every time he had seen such a creature, he’d known a catch in his throat.
But Falcon Eddie, putting his bandana over the bird’s head and knotting it in place, subdued the agitated bird. Even with the wings motionless, Eddie knew he had in his hands the fastest creature in the world. The weight was light, but the promise was prodigious. Inserting his catch carefully into the holding sleeve of his jacket, he carried the falcon home with him.
In that manner he brought the bird back to the ranch, like a treasure retrieved, and elation was all over his face as he rode up to the front of the ranch house, where his parents greeted him.
“Is that really a falcon you have, Eddie,” his mother said. The glee on his face was answer enough for her.
He showed her the eggs. “We’ll have to keep them warm, and we’ll have to fix the bird’s wounds. He was caught up in the fence wire.”
The falcon, keeping the eggs warm, waiting for them to hatch, mended quickly and was trained by Eddie in exhaustive sessions. The first found eggs, it is sad to say, failed to hatch, but Eddie Marion had a role for himself cut out in life. The family admitted that he would never be a cattleman. But he caught a few more falcons, raised a few falcons hatched from eggs taken from cliff tops, and found himself, one day down the line, filling a couple of canteens with water for two bad hombres who had guns trained on his family.
All the training, both ways, came into play.
Falcon Eddie whistled once, and the falcon in the cage with the door now ajar flew up in a quick spiral, exciting everybody. They all stared upward. The bird whirled high in the air, turned over on its back, and with phenomenal speed that neither of the intruders had over seen dove down and snatched the stuffed bird off Falcon Eddie’s Stetson. One man ducked for cover and the other, afraid to be target for the bird a second time, dropped his weapon and threw his arms over his head.
And Jiggs Marion, still quick on his feet, fast on the move, snatched his pistol from the ground and shot one man still holding a weapon, and stood over the second man, the bird man, grinning.
The young birdman, Falcon Eddie, raised his leather-sleeved arm and the falcon, in a feathering arrest of flight, came down to roost on that raised arm.