Western Short Story
The Hawk and a Can of Peaches 
Tom Sheehan


Western Short Story

The shadow flew above him for the second time. There was no sound of wings. The shadow was gone before he could open his eyes. For that flash of a second, whatever threw the shadow managed to shut off the sun. If it could only stand still, that shadow thrower, and let him cool, let him rest, let him sleep without fear of the great birds feasting, he’d be satisfied.

But he knew it wouldn’t. He wouldn’t.

He had no name because he could not remember it. His horse was food for the great vultures. The sun, sitting in the sky like a fireball, had gone in behind his eyes and he knew he’d be blind soon … if he did not die of thirst, of hunger, of giant birds, like his horse, perhaps something eating him up from below, from underneath the carcass, the way a desert can serve itself, taste what is available, take it.

The sand was burning his hands. If he had a ladle in them, he might not get it to his lips, now parched, cracked, bleeding, but only so long before the blood would dry up, coil into hard lines only a begging word could move, like “help, help,” but there were no listeners, no rescuers, no living person within the sound of his voice, almost including himself, as he tasted the blood again, this time dryer, less saltier, not as warm, signaling.

The shadow fell again, silent as a falling leaf, and quickly went away, as if chased by another great sky creature.

He wondered about signs that fell around him, rose up in him, or came aloft in the hot sky. Would he recognize anything anymore the way the sun sat behind his eyes like the inside of an iron stove in the cabin back in … back in … … back in where? Where? Where was it? Who sat near it? Whose cabin? … What cabin? What sign had he missed in that moment when the cabin disappeared?

The slight sound he heard was a lizard on the sand, and the sand trickled upon itself as the lizard, paying no attention to him, passed from sight. How did the lizard stay alive in the hot sand? Did it find a rock to hide under? A bush? A hole in the ground? Would the lizard face a snake in such a hole? Would he if he could crawl down into Mother Earth? Return to the dust he had come from? His mother was naught but dust now for forty years. Her face was gone. He saw an eye, a cheek, one lip slide to one side, but could not see of her features at one time. Would he ever see her face again?

From the other side of nowhere, the silent sky shadow passed over him again. He thought it might be a prayer being said for him, or one more sign he’d not be able to read. The sun was hotter behind his eyes. But there had been the shadow. He had seen a shadow. He was positive of it. A shadow. A living thing. He was breathing and the shadow had to be breathing too.

He started to count. Why had he not counted before, between appearances of the sky shadow? How far did it go, to swing around and come back? Was it gone into a loop, a circle, a merry ride just to tease him?

He tried to push one hand into the sand. At first it was too hot to touch, that sand, but an inch gained and it came cooler, still hot but cooler. He pushed his arm harder, his hand, the fingers as straight as he could hold them, thinking of an arrowhead, a spear point, the blade of a knife, the front edge of an ax or a maul. He thought about doctors and lumbermen and bakers with tools of their own. All he had were his fingers, stubby fingers loaded with pain he swore would cripple him if he lived long enough.

The sand was cooler. His fingers were down three or four inches. Could he cover his whole body? No, he’d not have that strength. He’d never last that long, unless there were signs to give him hope, alert him to water, food, comfort.

The whoosh of close wings he suddenly heard, the ruffle of feathers. The wind parted some of the feathers, making swift and easy music at his ears, and then went silent. No warning had come to him. He had forgotten the count; how long it had been? He’d count again for the next time. He was sorry that he did not see the shadow this time. Not a single trace of it. Only the whir of disturbed air in a musical sense that teased him deeply.

With one side of his head on the ground, he sensed the sand a bit cooler, which made him decide not to move, knowing the other side would suffer the sun. But in that grounded ear, from the heart of Earth itself, he swore again that a new sound was at an echo, was rolling, had momentum, was at his eardrum like a train from a distance when the boy he once was put his ear on a steel rail. Those times he heard history being made and a monstrous steam engine and people coming his way with the circus, pretty ladies, soldiers in blue, men in chains, guards with a thousand rifles out the train windows, the fireman and the engineer showing white only in their teeth and in the corners of their eyes. All the while the black smoke streamed away into the same sky that now threw shadows his way. Was the shadow, the momentary shadow he had known a few times as he felt the desert his whole length, merely a remnant from his boyhood? From a long-gone distant train, once known, never to come back?

He could have leaped. There was something at his toes. He could not move to look, but managed, with sincere difficulty, to move two toes and disturb the disturbance.

He was caught between two signs. His mind settled it for him. The two toes wiggled again. He heard, or sensed, something moving on the sand, moving away. And there was the other Earth rumble still at its work.

It returned, the shadow from the sky. It had made a habit in its flight. He was the target of its returns, he decided. The shadow said it was hope, though his eyes burned, his lips bled, his throat afire with pincer blazes.

Was this his sign, as he lay inches from death, inches from life, inches from becoming a meal? This shadow? This returning shadow?

With all remaining energy, so that he could at least determine if he could see what was swinging past him, not on a thermal but with direction, with design, he removed his hand from beneath a simple pile of sand. He shaded his eyes with that hand, and heard the sound again in the earth as he looked overhead, the sun at a new angle, the burning at a new stretch.

The rumble started in his gut, shot through his body, came to roost in his mind, and appeared inside the fire in his eyes, like in the midst of a storm, the eye of a storm.

The shadow was a hawk, a most beautiful hawk, with a magnificent wing spread, coming in lower than before he assumed, a difference in its approach, the sun behind it.

In spite of the beautiful wing spread, there was something ungainly about the bird. He shielded his eyes and realized the hawk carried something unnatural in its talons.

Realization said the hawk, like himself, was in trouble, and needed assistance.

He stretched his hand, made his only sign of the day, and the hawk dropped in beside that hand.

The hawk’s right talon was caught up in a can. The cover, not fully removed from the container, had a grip on talons that had pushed down through the top of the can, and were caught securely in a sharp grip.

Somewhere out there, at a late stop in the evening, who knows how long ago, a drover had finished off a can of peaches possibly and tossed the empty can onto the grass near the campfire. Night came full and the morning sun found the can first, then, perhaps, the hawk.

Now, another man pushed down on the cover, while the hawk remained still, and pushed the bird’s leg down so that the cover was freed of its pincer grasp and the man withdrew the hawk’s leg. Released, pain possibly gone or relieved, the hawk flew off due south, and returned no more.

From the Earth the man heard the other sound, knew the other sign, and hoped it was a good one.

The can cover was clean, with a shiny, tin surface, and the sun glanced off it as he moved it. He let the shiny cover play loose in the sun, flashing it rapidly, and the reflections went in all directions.

The lead scout of an army troop saw the reflections, advised the troop commander, and the man was lifted from the sand, watered lightly, covered with a shirt, and carried to the army post.

When Sheriff Ron Glispen returned to his home town, having been missing for two weeks on a posse, the fugitive had been caught, tried, hanged, and a new sheriff appointed, along with a new deputy.

Glispen wandered off and was never heard from again. Some folks said he went back to Pennsylvania to do some trout fishing in the mountains, away from the desert, a long way from the desert.

The shadow flew above him for the second time. There was no sound of wings. The shadow was gone before he could open his eyes. For that flash of a second, whatever threw the shadow managed to shut off the sun. If it could only stand still, that shadow thrower, and let him cool, let him rest, let him sleep without fear of the great birds feasting, he’d be satisfied.

But he knew it wouldn’t. He wouldn’t.

He had no name because he could not remember it. His horse was food for the great vultures. The sun, sitting in the sky like a fireball, had gone in behind his eyes and he knew he’d be blind soon … if he did not die of thirst, of hunger, of giant birds, like his horse, perhaps something eating him up from below, from underneath the carcass, the way a desert can serve itself, taste what is available, take it.

The sand was burning his hands. If he had a ladle in them, he might not get it to his lips, now parched, cracked, bleeding, but only so long before the blood would dry up, coil into hard lines only a begging word could move, like “help, help,” but there were no listeners, no rescuers, no living person within the sound of his voice, almost including himself, as he tasted the blood again, this time dryer, less saltier, not as warm, signaling.

The shadow fell again, silent as a falling leaf, and quickly went away, as if chased by another great sky creature.

He wondered about signs that fell around him, rose up in him, or came aloft in the hot sky. Would he recognize anything anymore the way the sun sat behind his eyes like the inside of an iron stove in the cabin back in … back in … … back in where? Where? Where was it? Who sat near it? Whose cabin? … What cabin? What sign had he missed in that moment when the cabin disappeared?

The slight sound he heard was a lizard on the sand, and the sand trickled upon itself as the lizard, paying no attention to him, passed from sight. How did the lizard stay alive in the hot sand? Did it find a rock to hide under? A bush? A hole in the ground? Would the lizard face a snake in such a hole? Would he if he could crawl down into Mother Earth? Return to the dust he had come from? His mother was naught but dust now for forty years. Her face was gone. He saw an eye, a cheek, one lip slide to one side, but could not see of her features at one time. Would he ever see her face again?

From the other side of nowhere, the silent sky shadow passed over him again. He thought it might be a prayer being said for him, or one more sign he’d not be able to read. The sun was hotter behind his eyes. But there had been the shadow. He had seen a shadow. He was positive of it. A shadow. A living thing. He was breathing and the shadow had to be breathing too.

He started to count. Why had he not counted before, between appearances of the sky shadow? How far did it go, to swing around and come back? Was it gone into a loop, a circle, a merry ride just to tease him?

He tried to push one hand into the sand. At first it was too hot to touch, that sand, but an inch gained and it came cooler, still hot but cooler. He pushed his arm harder, his hand, the fingers as straight as he could hold them, thinking of an arrowhead, a spear point, the blade of a knife, the front edge of an ax or a maul. He thought about doctors and lumbermen and bakers with tools of their own. All he had were his fingers, stubby fingers loaded with pain he swore would cripple him if he lived long enough.

The sand was cooler. His fingers were down three or four inches. Could he cover his whole body? No, he’d not have that strength. He’d never last that long, unless there were signs to give him hope, alert him to water, food, comfort.

The whoosh of close wings he suddenly heard, the ruffle of feathers. The wind parted some of the feathers, making swift and easy music at his ears, and then went silent. No warning had come to him. He had forgotten the count; how long it had been? He’d count again for the next time. He was sorry that he did not see the shadow this time. Not a single trace of it. Only the whir of disturbed air in a musical sense that teased him deeply.

With one side of his head on the ground, he sensed the sand a bit cooler, which made him decide not to move, knowing the other side would suffer the sun. But in that grounded ear, from the heart of Earth itself, he swore again that a new sound was at an echo, was rolling, had momentum, was at his eardrum like a train from a distance when the boy he once was put his ear on a steel rail. Those times he heard history being made and a monstrous steam engine and people coming his way with the circus, pretty ladies, soldiers in blue, men in chains, guards with a thousand rifles out the train windows, the fireman and the engineer showing white only in their teeth and in the corners of their eyes. All the while the black smoke streamed away into the same sky that now threw shadows his way. Was the shadow, the momentary shadow he had known a few times as he felt the desert his whole length, merely a remnant from his boyhood? From a long-gone distant train, once known, never to come back?

He could have leaped. There was something at his toes. He could not move to look, but managed, with sincere difficulty, to move two toes and disturb the disturbance.

He was caught between two signs. His mind settled it for him. The two toes wiggled again. He heard, or sensed, something moving on the sand, moving away. And there was the other Earth rumble still at its work.

It returned, the shadow from the sky. It had made a habit in its flight. He was the target of its returns, he decided. The shadow said it was hope, though his eyes burned, his lips bled, his throat afire with pincer blazes.

Was this his sign, as he lay inches from death, inches from life, inches from becoming a meal? This shadow? This returning shadow?

With all remaining energy, so that he could at least determine if he could see what was swinging past him, not on a thermal but with direction, with design, he removed his hand from beneath a simple pile of sand. He shaded his eyes with that hand, and heard the sound again in the earth as he looked overhead, the sun at a new angle, the burning at a new stretch.

The rumble started in his gut, shot through his body, came to roost in his mind, and appeared inside the fire in his eyes, like in the midst of a storm, the eye of a storm.

The shadow was a hawk, a most beautiful hawk, with a magnificent wing spread, coming in lower than before he assumed, a difference in its approach, the sun behind it.

In spite of the beautiful wing spread, there was something ungainly about the bird. He shielded his eyes and realized the hawk carried something unnatural in its talons.

Realization said the hawk, like himself, was in trouble, and needed assistance.

He stretched his hand, made his only sign of the day, and the hawk dropped in beside that hand.

The hawk’s right talon was caught up in a can. The cover, not fully removed from the container, had a grip on talons that had pushed down through the top of the can, and were caught securely in a sharp grip.

Somewhere out there, at a late stop in the evening, who knows how long ago, a drover had finished off a can of peaches possibly and tossed the empty can onto the grass near the campfire. Night came full and the morning sun found the can first, then, perhaps, the hawk.

Now, another man pushed down on the cover, while the hawk remained still, and pushed the bird’s leg down so that the cover was freed of its pincer grasp and the man withdrew the hawk’s leg. Released, pain possibly gone or relieved, the hawk flew off due south, and returned no more.

From the Earth the man heard the other sound, knew the other sign, and hoped it was a good one.

The can cover was clean, with a shiny, tin surface, and the sun glanced off it as he moved it. He let the shiny cover play loose in the sun, flashing it rapidly, and the reflections went in all directions.

The lead scout of an army troop saw the reflections, advised the troop commander, and the man was lifted from the sand, watered lightly, covered with a shirt, and carried to the army post.

When Sheriff Ron Glispen returned to his home town, having been missing for two weeks on a posse, the fugitive had been caught, tried, hanged, and a new sheriff appointed, along with a new deputy.

Glispen wandered off and was never heard from again. Some folks said he went back to Pennsylvania to do some trout fishing in the mountains, away from the desert, a long way from the desert.


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