Eyes of the Hawk
By Elmer Kelton
Tom Doherty Associates Copyright © 1981 Elmer Kelton
All rights reserved.
No one wants you to tamper with a legend, especially by telling the truth. Over the years I have often been asked what I know of the Texas legend of Stonehill town, and of the man the Mexicans came to call the Hawk, the man who killed that town in vengeance.
I have found it convenient to live with the legend, for that is what people want to hear. The legend is mostly true, as far as it goes. But recently, feeling the growing weight of my years and knowing I may soon be learning the answers to other great mysteries, I have felt some need to set down the rest of the story as I know it. The truth will do no great injury to the legend, for the legend has a life of its own and will outlive both the truth and the teller.
Though I have lived out my graying years near what little remains of old Stonehill town, I do not often go there. Walking in the grass where her streets used to be, I can hear the wind whisper secrets through the sagging buildings that time has not yet crushed, and I imagine I hear ghosts of the years long gone rustling through her ruins. A chill comes upon me yet when I stand at the spot where he sat on his horse, looking down upon a boy who lay there in silence. I can see him shaking his fist in a black anger and shouting to all who could hear him that he would kill Stonehill town as mercilessly as it had murdered his son.
I prefer to remember Stonehill as I first saw it, the great freight wagons and the lumbering Mexican oxcarts challenging one another for space in the narrow streets, the busy clamor of a vital people searching for glory and riches that existed only in their dreams. They lived in hardship and squalor, and sometimes they died in a hostile wilderness, alone and afraid. But the leaders of the country told them this was necessary to the fulfillment of their manifest destiny. They accepted it, most of them, and never turned back. Good men, bad men, and those in between, they differed in many ways. But in one respect they were mostly much alike. They were people of ambition and nerve, and hunger.
I well remember my first meeting with Thomas Canfield in the old port town of Indianola. You won't find the place on a map; it was destroyed in later years by one of those killer hurricanes that occasionally roars in from the Gulf of Mexico to erase all trace of man and his works.
It was only a small town with perhaps one or two permanent stone buildings when I landed there off of the merchant vessel James Callahan in the winter of 1854 — 55. I was the youngest of several sons on a small cotton farm along the Mississippi delta in Louisiana. My parents were too poor to have slaves, so they had children instead. My limited schooling gave me enough skill with ciphers to understand that my share of the family holdings would not long shield me from starvation once I left the protective roof. At seventeen I put all my personal belongings upon my back, hired as a crewman on a boat hauling a load of cotton, and shortly found myself exploring the wonders of New Orleans. I found much there to interest and no little to tempt a boy whose pockets are empty, as mine soon were. I further discovered that few people would hire even a strong and willing white boy for wages when they had slaves to do the heavy lifting without pay. I also found people in general agreement that Texas was a wondrous land where money lay in the streets, just waiting for someone to pick it up. At first opportunity I hired as a laborer on the James Callahan, which was hauling manufactured goods to Texas and would be bringing cotton back.
It did not take me long to decide that a seaman's life was not cut to my frame, for I spent more time at the rail than at my work. The captain probably would have fired me had we not already passed over the bar and were well out to sea. Once the sickness passed, he saw to it that I made up for the lost time. It was, all in all, a miserable passage. We ran into one major winter storm that brought me fear of a type I had never known; I was certain I would soon drown in that cold, terrible water. But I was not so lucky, for all I did was become deathly ill from an attack of the grippe, brought on by working on deck soaked to the skin. I wished mightily that I could die and end the misery. But my protecting angel had remained in New Orleans.
Even at the beginning I had intended to remain a sailor only long enough to reach Texas, and my experiences on shipboard only served to deepen my resolve in this direction. I felt duty-bound to remain with the crew long enough to see the cargo unloaded, but I felt no such duty toward seeing the waiting cotton bales carried aboard. I took my pay from the captain's reluctant hands and quickly found how meager it was when I tried to convert it into the necessities of life ashore. It took much less time to spend than to earn.
Indianola offered no employment to such as I, and no money was lying in the streets. If there had ever been, the constant stream of humanity passing through had picked it up and made off with it long before I had my chance. I decided the fortune, if there was one, must lie somewhere inland.
I ate little and slept beneath a wharf while awaiting my chance. Even for a boy whose main concern was a hungry belly, there was much to marvel over. It was my first time to see the big Mexican oxcarts, their wooden wheels as high as a man's shoulder. The axles were crude and squealed in pain when not well greased, so that the carts' coming was known before they broke into view. The Mexicans themselves were a curiosity to me — little men, most of them, rattling away in a foreign tongue that made no sense in my ear. I had heard Cajun French, but I could find no similarity between that and the quick-fire Spanish these people spoke. I was fascinated by their wide sombreros, by the great jingling spurs worn by the horsemen.
I had heard, of course, about the two wars the Texans had fought against Mexico, and I had assumed those were long since over. They were not, except in name. The Texas freight wagons came lumbering into town, many hauling bales of cotton and general farm produce to be shipped back to the other states for money. I sensed the enmity which flared between these people and the little men of the brown-leather skin. Around the wharf I heard casual talk about a "cart war," a rivalry between the Mexican cartmen and the gringo wagoners over the freight business between the ports and inland markets such as San Antonio. I heard it said that many men had died or disappeared on those long, dusty trails that wound through the brush country, men of both persuasions.
On my second day I saw a Mexican and a Texan meet with knives in hand after a wagon and a cart hung wheels on an Indianola street. Nobody in the crowd moved to stop the fight until it became clear the Mexican was about to win. Then a broad-shouldered Texan with red beard and long rusty-colored hair swung a singletree and clubbed the Mexican to the ground. I was satisfied the cart driver was dead, but friends carried him away. Later I saw the little man sitting up beside a campfire, his head swathed in dirty bandages. I decided they were a hardy lot, these Texas people, whether light-skinned or dark.
On inquiry I found that the red-bearded man was named Branch Isom. He bossed a string of wagons that was loading goods I had helped carry off of the James Callahan. It was said he would be taking them to San Antonio by way of Stonehill. I had never heard of Stonehill, and San Antonio sounded considerably more romantic. Perhaps it was there that money lay in the streets. I went to his camp and found him sitting on a bedroll, leaning his back against the huge rear wheel of a freight wagon. He held a cup of coffee in one hand and an open whisky bottle in the other, taking a sip of each in its own turn. A coldness in his eyes made me hesitate in my last steps.
I said, "Mr. Isom, I am Reed Sawyer."
No change came in his eyes. He studied me in cold silence, then asked, "Is there any reason that should be of interest to me?"
"I would like a job with your wagons to San Antonio."
He scowled. "I suppose you'd expect to be paid for it."
"Only what is customary. I was paid fifty cents a day, meals and a bunk on the ship. With your wagons there would be only the meals."
His voice was as cold as his eyes. "You don't look healthy to me. You've probably got some disease you'd spread to everybody in the crew."
"I had the grippe on board. I am over that now. I am strong. I can do my share of the work."
He laughed, but it was not the kind of warm, friendly laugh you like to hear. "There are people in this port who would pay me to take them along, and they'd work for nothing. Why should I pay you? Get away from here, boy, before I sic my dogs on you."
I saw the dogs, big ugly gray brutes of uncertain ancestry. They looked as if they would chew a man's legs off on command. A chill ran up my back. I turned without saying more and walked away from Isom's camp. The smell of the coffee and the cooking food went with me, for I had not eaten all day. I bought a fish from a man on the beach, roasted it over an open fire, then slept in my accustomed damp place beneath the wharf.
It was the next morning that the Polanders arrived. They came up the trail from Galveston. I learned later that they had been with a larger group of mixed Europeans who had landed there but had been delayed in Galveston by fever, so that the main body went ahead without them. Now, after having buried one or two of their party they had come on, bound for a settlement already laid out for them many days' journey inland.
, They seemed as strange to me in their own way as the Mexicans. Having had little time for the study of geography, I had only the vaguest knowledge of the various European countries' names, much less their locations. For all I knew, Poland was a part of Africa. Mostly I looked at the women, particularly the young ones. At seventeen, I found it particularly interesting that they wore the shortest skirts I had seen except in the drinking halls of New Orleans. The skirts ended above the ankles, a scandalous sight. The better people of Indianola were quick to decide that these were loose women, for only that sort would flaunt themselves so. Some of the immigrant women wore wooden shoes, and most had black felt hats with wide brims.
People were laughing and pointing, but somehow I was stirred to pity, not laughter. These immigrants looked as hungry and poor as I was myself. At least I had the advantage of being able to speak with the people around me. These Polanders talked in a tongue that no one in Indianola seemed able to understand. They tried making signs but had scant success even with that. I could only imagine how they had made themselves understood well enough in Galveston that they hired Mexican cartmen to haul their belongings. In four big two-wheeled carts were piled trunks and a few featherbeds and some wooden farm implements they had brought from the old country.
Branch Isom came along to watch the show, he and some of his wagon men. It was obvious he had little regard for the foreigners. He had even less when he saw they were using Mexican cartmen. "Birds of a feather," he grumbled. "Dumb heathens, there's not one of them that understands English."
A man at his side said, "I wonder if they understand dog."
Those ugly gray curs had followed. The man sicced them onto the oxen that pulled the lead cart. Trapped in crude and heavy wooden yokes, the poor brutes kicked at the dogs and then tried to run. They only succeeded in dragging the cart into a ditch. It tipped over, spilling trunks and wooden plows and bedding onto the ground. The strange-looking foreigners went running after, trying to spare their goods further damage. They chunked rocks at the dogs and whipped them with sticks until the pair gave up and retreated to their master.
It was then that Thomas Canfield rode up. He seemed to appear from nowhere, sitting on a long-legged, beautifully built sorrel horse in the middle of the street. He was a tall man, not blocky and stout like Isom but well built just the same. He was then only in his early twenties but already mature in features, his bearing proud. He was clearly a man sure where he was going and unwilling to waste time along the way.
He said sternly, "Isom, do you want to talk some business, or had you rather bedevil a bunch of poor foreigners who have already had hell enough?"
Isom turned. His manner showed that this man on horseback was one he respected, though I also got the idea he did not particularly like him. "Hello, Canfield. What business could I possibly have with you?"
"That depends on how willing you are to talk price. Some goods came for me on that last ship out of New Orleans. I want them hauled to Stonehill."
The dogs stood by Isom's legs, their tongues hanging out. They still looked toward the ditched cart, considering the peril of renewed assault. One of them decided to try and started back toward the cart. Isom said sharply, "Here, dogs! Stay here." They obeyed. Isom had a voice that commanded obedience of man or beast. "What kind of goods?" he asked.
Canfield said, "Farm implements."
The foreigners did not understand the talk. It came to me later, when I took time to think about it, that they thought Thomas Canfield had come to their rescue and had ordered Isom to halt the harassment. One of the young women — just a girl, really — looked at Canfield with open admiration. In a minute Canfield caught the look, and he stared back at the girl.
Isom said, "Farm implements are heavy. I'll have to look at the load before we can figure."
Canfield didn't hear him; he was distracted by the girl. So was I. It was her ankles which got my attention at first. Growing up, I had had to take it on faith that girls even had ankles. But she had a pleasant face, too, and soft brown eyes that reminded me of a doe. Her full attention was devoted to Canfield, and his to her.
Isom repeated himself. Canfield nodded. They started together toward the wharf, Canfield still riding that big sorrel, Isom walking with the dogs behind him.
None of the American people helped the foreigners get the cart out of the ditch. Most simply went on about their business. In a few minutes some Mexican cartmen came along, and the Mexicans who were with the Polanders called on them for help. They had to finish unloading the heavy goods out of the cart. In a bit they manuevered the oxen up and got the big wooden wheels back on flat ground. Then all of the Polanders, women as well as the men, set in to loading their goods back into place. I stayed out of it at first because I didn't figure it was any of my business, but then I started thinking that if I helped I might be invited to share a meal with somebody. I didn't know what kind of food Mexicans or Polanders ate, but anything was better than fish roasted on a stick over an open fire, which was all I had had for three days. I pitched in and helped lift the heavy trunks and the wooden plows. Not until later did I realize I wouldn't recognize an invitation to supper if they gave me one. I never knew there were so many strange languages in one place.
One thing most people don't realize is that Texas was a mixed lot of humanity in those days. There seems to be a mistaken impression that early Texas had just two kinds of people: leftover Mexicans and Bible-reading, whisky-drinking, rifle-shooting, English-speaking immigrants from Tennessee. In truth, it wasn't like that at all. Texas drew people from all over the world because it was so big, and it had so much land to offer. It was considered a place for starting anew, no matter what fate had dealt to each person before. All kinds of people moved to Texas. Wherever you went, you found settlements of Germans, Swedes, Irish, French, Czechs. It was a Babel without a tower. It was a melting pot that never quite melted.
I didn't find a soul in the party that I could talk with, so I stood off to one side, looking hungry and waiting to see what might happen. In a little while Thomas Canfield rode back from the wharf with a grim look on his face. I assumed Isom had asked him more than he had expected to haul his goods. Canfield headed directly up to the Polanders and spoke to the Mexican cartmen who had come along and helped reload the cart. I could tell he was struggling with the language. In later years he could talk Spanish like a native. But even when I first saw him, he was able to understand and make himself understood. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Eyes of the Hawk by Elmer Kelton. Copyright © 1981 Elmer Kelton. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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