Western Short Story
Great Sky
Tom Sheehan

Western Short Story

Nothing showed as splendid and wide as the sky he slept under every night, counting stars, watching the moon develop anew every time out, listening to the ballad and chorus of wolves and coyotes. To him they seemed to enjoy the same grandeur that grabbed him by his boot straps while he dreamed of home beside the river back in Kentucky. Tim Hotchkins, now and then, slept the grandest sleep imaginable. Yet that sleep was full of images, scenes and faces from the past as he moved on his long journey across the middle of America. The one face that stayed the longest, and truest, was his mother’s. The Great God above had touched her with a grace he found nowhere else on his journey.

He had spent his last day at home with her and she had commissioned him. In all her grace, and suggestion, she had commissioned him. “We are getting too big for this little corner of a mountain, Timothy. For us there is a place somewhere. Find us some space out there where the land splurges and multiplies under your feet, where grass, I hear, runs for miles and miles like it might be running away from the world itself and right to ‘Amen’ country. Glory be, when you find the place for us, all of us, let us know. The Good Lord above will let you know. It might happen above you, around you, below you, but you will know.”

Her hand on his shoulder touched him with that commission, and a light touch on his face had carried him through clashes with brigands, hostile Indians fighting for their own survival as a people, road agents, women of low intent and high demands. Rock slides and avalanches and wild rivers came his way and he passed by or through them. He had also gone through several lovely places on the road west he thought she would grasp to her bosom. But the high sign had not come to announce any of them.

A matching grace is what he kept looking for on his westward journey.

None of that grace was in Grove City, which he had left the night before, a roaring, glaring new city on the bend of a river rushing out of a rugged mountain setting. A high mountain range he had crossed, wider and higher than the Blue Ridge Mountains, and he came down into the city where the water rushed by on its way out of that range. The river was as fast and as noisy as the city he came into, windows ablaze with night light as he approached the outer edge of small buildings almost sitting in the grass of the prairie, like checkers on the edge of the board. He swore he could not tell the livery from the bank, the structures being identical, but the saloon was the easiest to find, for light was ablaze from half a dozen windows, and also ablaze was the music and noise coming hard as a cavalry charge, drums and bugles to boot, from the saloon as it swept out onto the main road going through the heart of the town.

As always, in the midst of such distractions grabbing at him, he heard the echoes of his mother’s voice, her wishes, as though the very breeze carried them from Kentucky and the edge of the mountain back there.

“Count the stars and know the sky when you lay down to sleep, my boy,” his mother had said. “When you come to the Great Sky, when you feel it rock through you like a fire of its own and that fire is tended by your happiness, you’ll know the place that all the Hotchkins have been waiting a hundred years for. We’ll be waiting for the word, come by telegraph, post boy, on the wind, we’ll know the place has been found. We’ll be counting on you, for you have been born special for this search. I’ve heard it for forty years; my last born will be the first to find a new home for us. You are my last born and I have waited all this time for your journey. Go with all the good graces I can pray for.”

With all that beating at him, knowing the commission of her words, the expectations reigning with it, his throat still knew the dry dust of the open road. That surge of dryness took him toward the lights, the music and the noise.

At the bar of the Golden Palace he was sipping at a mug of beer, mindless of the noise behind him, the sounds of silk and denim at odds and in unison at the same time, when an old gent sauntered to the bar from a corner of the room. His beard was full-blown and white as a puffy cloud, and though tiredness sat on his face, his movements were quicker than one would think. Long life marked itself on his brow and a bulbous scar across his nose the way a bear claw might leave dread intentions.

“Say, son,” the old man said, “you appear to me not to be interested in the goings on, but crave on something else. Could you buy a round or two for an old gent who’s got the same thirst you have? My name is Calder Willow. I’m a loner.”

Hotchkins tapped on the bar loud enough for the barkeep to look at him.

“Set a couple of beers up for Mr. Willow, if you will, and might as well get me another. And I’ll make a deal with you, barkeep. You serve me no more than four and then kindly usher me out of this place. That a deal?”

“It would be, except I can’t tell the boss that. He’d throw me out as quick. I can appreciate the limit. I can’t take too much either, or I’d be starving in a short time.”

“I’ll make sure of it, son,” Willow said, “even if it costs me a few more free drinks. I do appreciate your kindness. Don’t always find it less’n you’re out on the trail where everybody tends to brotherhood of some sort or other, like giving or taking what suits them. What’s your handle and where’re you headed?”

“Thanks for the advice, Mr. Willow. Kind voices always have a way of settling on you.”

“I wasn’t no way wrong about you, son. Not at all. You got goodness on you. I smelt it all across the room like it was honey plugs.”

“My name is Tim Hotchkins. Did you ever hear of a place might be called Great Sky or some such?”

Calder Willow, almost old as sin, spun on his boot heels, and stared into Hotchkins’ eyes. “Glory be, son, I ain’t heard about that place in more than 30 years. Maybe more than 30 years. My father was a mountain man, my mother a Sioux, and he called one place west of here by that very name, Great Sky.”

It was Hotchkins’ turn to spin on his heels. “You mean there’s such a place with that name? Where is it? Far from here? Is it real or imagined most of the way?” Another sip crossed his lips. “You wouldn’t be throwing any turd biscuits my way, would you, not an old man like you who’s been down the trail?”

“Oh, it’s real, son, though it ain’t on any map, and there ain’t no road sign pointing the way, but I been there and never been able to get back, maybe looking for something else instead, like a damned fool.” For a long moment he looked older than he was. In his eyes sat a long look into an unknown past as he stared at the bar top, and perhaps he held his breath a bit longer than he was used to, his face turning pink and flushed around the bushy beard, like it was deliberation itself. And he was politely ignoring, all the while, a salty looking man at the bar leaning their way, intruding like a ferret.

“I can show you the way, if you want me to,” Willow said. “Enough twists and turns in the trail to spoil a tracker.” The pause was significant in intent, but he did not plead his case. He simply added, “I’d need some grubstaking to get me there. I think the Good Lord might have sent you, for I always meant to get back there but never made it, like I said. Do me that favor, son, and I’ll get you to Great Sky. You’ll agree with me, and with my Paw, when you see it. It is a dreamland for those who see it ‘rightly.’” He stressed the word selection.

“ Shucks on me for avoiding it all these years. My Paw said he even stirred up a poke or two of good dust. But I never did see a speck of it, to tell the truth. Man probably lied to get me to stay, but I was burning up with curiosity to see all the other elsewheres.”

Hotchkins and old man Willow finished off their appointed rounds at the bar and left the saloon very quietly. Willow, like many old men of wars and battles, kept his eyes on their backside as they headed for the livery where they slept the night at the back of the livery, each telling the other it was a way of saving what money Hotchkins carried. In the morning, in the dawn flash and a big sun promised behind them, the two odd partners set off for Great Sky, westerly, across rivers, to where mountains, as Willow said, “Kiss the clouds on a misty day.”

They talked on horseback, as Willow advised they save their mounts as long as they could for “a ride up to the clouds.” Often he looked behind them, back down the trail as far as he could see, somewhat sly in his manner.

“Tell me about back home, Tim. Who are the folks back there waiting on your search?” Willow rode almost straight up in the saddle, a little give at his knees, the way age makes demands of the sort. “Besides your mother and paw, who’s there?”

“Oh, a passel of us, spread on our corner of the mountain, but we lose ground every time there’s a newborn. It’s why I’m looking. That’s reason enough.” His pause was an alert to the old man, who might nod his understanding before words were said, as he did this time, knowing something significant was coming from the young traveler. “My paw went off hunting one day and never came back. We never knew if a bear got him or a mountain lion or some thief looking for a rifle. We never found him or his gun. Part of the reason my mother wants to move, leave the bad memories and get a new start, get us spread out a bit.” And in one voice, without changing his tone, said, “What’re you looking for behind us all the time?”

“You caught that, eh? “Member that fellow at the bar, back there at the Golden Palace? He was a might nosy, but he ain’t the one behind us. It’s a younger feller I just can’t get figured yet.”

“What do we do about that, turn around and challenge him of a sudden?”

“If he intends to follow us all the way to Great Sky, it’s a cinch to nab him, but I ain’t sure he’s the only one.”

“Somebody else? You got good eyes for an old man.”

“Yeh,” Willow said, “and using them all the way from the saloon and the livery. That nosy feller. He saw some of your money, that I know. Caught his interest in a second, and I suppose he ain’t let go yet.”

“Can we nab him same as the young fellow?”

“Yep, you do just as I say, and we’ll corral both of ‘em easy. Great Sky is a great place to grab onto somebody,” and he quickly added, “in more ways than one. You’ll see that.”

For two more days they rode from sunrise into sunset, stopping to water and tend the horses, watching the trail behind them, and seeing nothing of the two trackers. Buzzards added their mysterious flight patterns, as did jack rabbits out on the run of grass. Coyote calls, now and then the scream of a big cat threatening an intruder of a kind, added to the sounds of travel. All the while Willow seemed to follow no landmark trails, but turned now and then in an odd way as if a divine interpretation was at work. It might have been mountain peaks that beckoned him, or the way evening sunlight filtered through passes and canyons setting the route for them.

“Both of them fellers are pretty slick, I’d say,” Willow offered a few times, as he studied the trail. “They find what shade and shadow hangs on for the using and make ‘em do, as well as the wadis and the arroyos they come across, dipping out of sight for miles. But we’ll narrow it all down near Great Sky. Place is meant for selection, if I do say so, and I sure do.”

One morning, three days later, Hotchkins awoke from a deep sleep to see in the early haze Willow climbing back to their campsite under a tree on a small hillock in otherwise open ground running along a mountain range. He had no idea where they were.

Willow, slipping back into camp in the haze like a ghost that had been out on a night frolic, said, “Found the second feller back there. It was the feller saw your money at the saloon. He won’t be much of a problem; his horse has gone lame on him. I saw nothing of the young one tracking him, but it’s like we have one bad one and one good one on our trail. One against the other I’d bet. If the younger feller is a lawman and after the other gent, he could’ve had him easy by now. And he ain’t after us getting away from the law because we ain’t broke none.” Then he hit Hotchkins with a big surprise: “You any sure that there was no one dogging you since you left home? It’s the only thing I can think of.”

“Well I never did think of that. You mean maybe since I left home, Ma has snuck someone on my tail?” A huge smile crossed Tim Hotchkins’ face. “I wouldn’t doubt it one bit. Sounds like something she was bound to do, and if she did, it wouldn’t be anybody else but my cousin, Gorman Littlejohn, from the end of the mountain in Kentuck. He’s a hunting fool from the first word out of his mouth. Been known to chase down a few thieves, too, that got too frisky around family people. Has the eye and nose of a hound.”

“I kind of think that’s how he plays the game. Sounds like it’s him, from what I’ve seen of him, and I ain’t seen much.” He laughed at his own choice of words, tossing his head in a way that pleased Hotchkins with its honesty and joyful celebration.

Later that day, at the foot of a new range of mountain, Willow lead his companion on a torturous trail through rocks, oddly-scarred cliff faces, caves and canyons with so many turns in them, Hotchkins got dizzy thinking about where he had been in the last hours.

At the end of one set of vertical walls in a canyon where the sun never touched one side, Willow took Hotchkins aside and said, “We wait here, behind this stone.” It was a huge rock left from a millennium’s run into history. “Nobody gets past us now. This is like a jail corridor. We sleep now, and in the morning we’ll see Great Sky first hand.”

With dawn teasing them the way it does in close quarters, the sound of a pebble rolling on the floor of the canyon woke the two men at once. “Shush,” said Willow, pointing. “He’s over that way.” He retrieved his rifle from his saddle under the overhang and stood to look the way he had pointed. He was unaware of the shadow rising behind him. Their horses snickered in the darkness around the bend.

It was then the shot rang out, a loud echoing blast that ran in the narrow corridor like a train heading down the line. Came to them the sounds of a gasp, a moan, a rifle falling on stone, and the thud of an upright body hitting the rock floor.

All the noise was followed by a yell further behind. “Don’t get excited, Cousin Tim. It’s me, Cousin Gorman. Your ma sent me as company. This gent had his sights set on one of you. He gets one of you, he gets himself a horse. His animal ain’t much good now. Damned fool left his horse to die. That surely made me angry. I had to put the critter down. No man ought to do that to his horse.”

The introductions were made, and Calder Willow said, “We might as well finish this journey today. We put this bushwhacker in a proper setting, say our prayers for his soul, and find what a great chunk of Kentucky’s been looking for.”

Several hours later the trio came out of a tight squeeze through a maze of rock walls and a cave as big as a ranch house. They came out on the higher lip of a full-flung valley that ran for miles in the basket of mountains around it. The grass was as green as ever seen, a small waterfall poured itself off a mountain face in a continuing gesture of earth’s richness, the leaves of timberland trees covered one whole side of a mountain until it ran out of sight against the stone peak, and overhead, in a display of god-given grandeur the heavens glowed with a high blue of uncountable grace that stunned all three men, including the man who had seen it all before, and wondered again why he had ever left it.