Some say that the spirit of Shotgun Willy was conceived on an early winter morning, when the last settlers of the Westward Expansion retreated from their outposts in the Great Plains. I suppose it swirled around the wild country for a while, wandering and collecting its memories in the windy gusts of ghosts going to God. I believe that this great manifestation of the free frontier eventually coalesced like a western twister into the little body of a boy born on January 17 of the year two thousand.
And they named him Maverick Cross.
After a series of spats with the local herdsmen, Great-great-great grandfather Cross and his two brothers were cast out from Ireland and promptly loaded onto a great big ship that sailed across the cold Atlantic. There were supposedly two different strains of their kind, the Crosses and the Crasses. However, the former found its way into the unpaved hill country of American Appalachia and settled in a large cavern along the side of the tallest mountain in the region. The cavern was as large as the maw of a great whale, and the mottled interior of granite looked like its innards. This later became the ancestral stronghold of the more successful Cross strain and was the seat of their early empire in the unsettled wilderness of 19th century Kentucky, known as Kaintuckee in those days. The oldest brother became renowned for his disposition, a strong flavor which locals deemed “crazy.” When he came charging through town on the bristled back of a wild mountain boar, a surprised and salty townsman tempted fate on his behalf, bellowing: “You can’t kill a Cross!” But he lived, and the adage stuck. All of his descendants have been the same way, and the flavor of his nature never diluted through the decades of generations that came and went. In fact, you could make the argument that it only got stronger, to the point where someone would either love it or hate it wholeheartedly.
The constantly rolling wheels of the modern Crosses ground to a stop against the rocky gravel of Dustford, Illinois at the behest of his mother’s sickness. A truck had slammed into her spleen as a girl, and it was decided that it would do everyone well to return to her hometown. Her infirmity proved she was not a Cross by blood and was not blessed by the lucky star of their line. Little Maverick was registered in a local school, and the family resumed their work with horses. The Crosses are inextricably tied to horses in every way of their livelihood. Maverick’s father shod horses as a farrier, his mother trained them, and he himself rode the wild horses at the local rodeos that would spin through their town every year. When he got older and learned to drive, he would chase the restless rodeo through faraway lands and return on blue moons to Dustford. He confided to a close friend once, “When it’s rodeo season, I often go away for a while. I like to stay gone.” On the late nights driving between shows, the dusty headlights of his car looked like stars soaring through the darkness. He tended to maintain that he ran towards things, but from the telescope of a distant observer, it was not always apparent whether he was chasing things or running from them.
Spirit of the Hawk
Some tell the story differently, that seven-year-old Maverick had slipped out from the side of the family van and fell into a canyon gulch near the border of Wyoming. A redtailed hawk took pity on the boy and scooped him up with its talons. It deposited him by the nearest highway. The bird sang old cowboy ballads to him until he fell asleep soundly along the roaring roadside. A band of passing wolves found baby Maverick and successfully raised him to toddlerhood in a single-wide trailer. There were no other neighbors by the trailer to attest or deny, so even the tallest of tales could never be cut down to the stump. It stands lonely and dilapidated now, a husk of its former honor as the cradle of its crown prince.
The passage of thirteen years eventually washed even this memory away, and twenty-year-old Maverick graduated from bumping around in his trailer to roaming supermarkets. Supermarkets have always been rural cornucopias, and even the greatest of kings will shed their crown at the entrance. The baseball cap Maverick wore often exhibited a marked propensity to keel to the side as if it was weighed down by heavy baubles won in foreign wars. An old friend recalled that he had a hat emblazoned with the words, “Sing-Maverick Machinery,” perhaps a treasure procured from an agriculture job in the Midwest. A replacement of the “S” with ‘K” was deemed more fitting in every way. It was on one of these excursions to Walmart that a red-tailed hawk flew over his person, heralding his arrival. In a burst of pride, he proclaimed to his companions, “That is my spirit animal!” And from then on out, no one ever challenged his legitimacy to the family throne again.
As it is always in matters of illustrious characters, things are believed, and things are said, and no one knows the real truth to the end.
After some years of running the road alone, it was only inevitable that Maverick felt compelled to continue his line. For his lineage was old, and he was proud, and he would not give the world a chance to run it down. He quickly took up with an Illinois woman by the name of Loreen Manly. She seemed better suited to her surname than the generic christening call of Loreen. She was built like a man, rough in both ways and wants. She had large, horsy teeth that champed through everything she came across. Long, straw-like hair fell loosely across her back, sharply contrasting with the tight rein she controlled horses and humans with. For some reason, the wild-horse spirit of Maverick felt a need to be broken by her brutish tendencies and was won over pretty quickly after seeing her scream at an ornery mare at the county fair. They settled into an uneasy truce together, and led a shared trail speckled with spiteful spats and stony silences. She kept him on a bitter diet of aggressive teasing and assignments of labor. She instructed him to come to her residence one afternoon to move furniture into a rattling horse trailer. The rusty trailer had an old habit of letting the wind in, aluminum plating cracked in haphazard places like tectonic plates. After setting down a few cardboard containers, Maverick looked around for a lampshade that might have rolled out a few boxes ago. Out of the corner of his eye, he believed he glimpsed the name of some other man on Manly’s phone. She was smiling at it, a direct corroboration to the fact of his thoughts. A burning inquiry quickly blossomed into the heat of an argument, culminating in the ashes of their association. He cast down the final box, dust flying up angrily where the edges cleaved the old dirt on the trailer floor. “What are you doing? And those are my clothes,” scoffed Fowlcheap, raising a righteous tone to cover the desolation of her dignity. “The last thing I’ll ever do for you,” came the reply. After that, he walked back to his truck and drove off. The last he ever decided to see of her was her staring incredulously at him through the rearview mirror, back bent like a clothes hanger.
Maverick never liked cities. He avoided them at all costs, even if it meant bypassing some family pizzeria against the protests of his friends. Such establishments always had worn walls, menu selections pasted in fuzzy white font onto a soft black backboard. They smelled of mildew, and Maverick always had a pronounced sensitivity to scents. He could never stand the stench of cigarettes, and tended to also avoid populated fairgrounds whenever possible. He didn’t seem to mind as much for rodeos. At the breaking of summer, Maverick embarked on a trip up to Chicago for a rodeo with friends. They told him that they were going to a city rodeo, and Maverick was quite enamored with the prospect of such a contrast between spotlight and setting. Perhaps the strange juxtaposition of a rodeo in the city carried with it the same implications of a salted watermelon slice, clearly clashing flavors that somehow found themselves in a savory enmeshment. Novelty always inspired him, and this time was no different. It took all the way to the red rail gating of the arena before the hapless band of brothers realized that there was no real rodeo, save a practice pen meant for kiddies. Never one to be disappointed visibly by even the most unfortunate circumstance, Maverick quickly recovered by jamming down a kid’s yogurt in the car while his frazzled friends were still calibrating the cost of their misfortune. It would take another couple loads of gas on their old rig before they could make it back to Dustford. They attempted to stop at a family pizzeria, but Maverick quickly stomped on the group’s inclination by throwing his hands up in the air and belting “Hound Dog” by Elvis Presley until they were convinced to go elsewhere. Maverick hated the city. He found it gray, uninviting, and the faded graffiti always reminded him of moldy streaks on his own bathroom tiles. They crashed at a friend’s house, and he took the sofa. In the midnight hour, he thought he heard a skirmish erupt near him. Leaping up and yanking down the lamp chain, he saw his host intertwined with a woman on the rug, bodies coiled around each other like dueling pythons. “That’s your sister!” he shrieked in the high timbre of condemnation. But they chose not to hear him, and it wasn’t until the next morning before the fact was laid clean that she was in fact his wife all along. It was the second great mistake of the trip, and he took it all in stride without a worry.
It was on one of these ill-fated trips to Chicago that finally pushed Shotgun Willy off the ledger of common sanity. He was always one foot off the edge of prudence anyway, but this certain night threw him over more than a football field. At a dinky dive bar located on the outskirts of the city, Maverick was instructed to relay a message to a friend’s girlfriend. Though the actual contents of the message are debated and largely unknown, the scenario that erupted at the bar certainly was not. He maintained that he was simply instructing the intoxicated woman to return to the van, but the situation veered sharply off course and she stuck him with a pocketknife in the arm. “You ain’t no woman no more!” was the last war-cry of Shotgun Willy before he sent her flying across the drinking counter and into the orderly pantheon of hard liquor brands on the shelf. He was quickly extricated from the quagmire by sympathetic friends, who swiftly ushered him out of the doors and into the nascent night. They brought him to a quieter house party down the street, filled with mutual contacts and one-time acquaintances. For Maverick, the night ended there. The next morning, his mouth was filled with the metallic tang of old blood. He spat out the rusty fluid onto his white shirt, dirty from the scuffles of the previous night. He raised his face to find the terrified stares of friends, congregated in a loose circle around the sofa he was laying on. His inquiry into the matter brought him the knowledge that he had bitten someone’s leg at the house party the night before. He had clamped down onto the meat, jaw locking like a pitbull’s. Panicked partygoers attempted to beat him into unconsciousness by repeatedly slamming his head with books, but he had refused to let go until his own weariness gave its consent. Not knowing what to make of the story at all, Shotgun Willy decided to hang it as a medal of pride. He would later bring it out to brandish like a war trophy in front of trusted confidantes or total strangers, depending on his own level of drunkenness at the moment. After this incident, singing old country songs in the key of sorrow became a nightly fixture of his, and empty barns seemed to him just as crowded as honkytonk floors. His voice would racket up to such a height that even horses were forced to listen, then it would swoop to the floor so that even mice were not exempt. The octaves he spanned were just as expansive as the altitudes and troughs of his moods, and perhaps he preferred it that way. He would often sing ballads in the vein of barroom blues, lyrics recoloring faded pictures of 19th-century cowboys, femme fatales, and western justice that decorated his bedroom walls.
On the way back home from a Tennessee rodeo, Maverick Cross was falling asleep on the long drive when a stray sun ray shot into his eye. Brain momentarily pulverized from the bullet of light, he jerked the wheel and his van responded by rolling down the mountainside. The old Volkswagen spat out the passengers like an unbalanced centrifuge into the crisp morning air. They fell like raindrops onto the field of tall grass, instantly disappearing where they landed. But, Shotgun Willy rose from the Great Plains in all his glory and staggered towards the back of the van. His golden hair was ruffled by the caressing wind, and the sunlight crowned his head in a halo where he stood. The blood streaking down his face could have marked him for martyrship, a canonized saint under the sun. He raised his arms to the sky, in an act of desperation that could equally qualify as some sort of spiritual outreach. The line has always been fine with the definition of both anyhow.
He woke up in a hospital, finding himself with a big headache both physically and financially. The hospital bill was in the astronomical thousands, and he did not want to deal with the searing pain in his spine either. He had broken his back. They wheeled in a wheelchair, and he was put in it.
After fees were paid and caskets were laid, Maverick returned to his hometown to stay for once. He decided to package his accident as a catalyst of transformation and quickly played the part. He asked for his old guitar, never touched, to be handed to him. He spent his bedrest strumming up new songs to deaden the noisy spinning of his wheels. Maverick whittled away the rest of his time paring through the pages of old magazines and the social media of random followers and acquaintances. In a bid for attention, he posted a photo of himself playing his guitar and singing a song about a doomed man sentenced to hang in the morning. He chose to place a grayscale filter over the photo, rationalizing that it would add a touch of sentimentality and sincerity to his screen presence. He made a music playlist for himself titled “Turning Over a New Leaf,” and would proudly
show it to visiting friends on his porch.
The doctor had prescribed a year of healing, but Maverick truncated it to a season and called it enough. He was determined to return to his days of small-town fame, basking in the limelight of county fairs and rodeos. Besides, he felt compelled by something in his marrow to get away from his hometown. The luster had long worn, and he had no desire to continue existence in the sunken hills of Dustford. For he knew he was not of the place truly, he belonged to the rolling valleys and mountains of Cross Cave. He was meant to take his place among his ancestors and all of their wild abandon, no matter the price he would pay for such redemption. There was no reasoning with him, medical least of all. Inwardly, he was terrified that the townspeople had forgotten his dominion. He needed them to watch him vault into the sky atop the wild horses, needed them to scream his name from the grandstands. He needed their acceptance of his nature, synonymous with the steeds he rode. But he would often speak to himself that he did not need their approval. Maverick was determined to convince himself that there was no bigger man in the arena to answer to, and would often decline to spare even a glance at the audience when he was performing. Or perhaps he was searching for something in the floodlights above the announcer’s stand, something transcendent that would remind him of his history and make him forget his fated future. He wanted life to be a set of dice, something unpredictable where anything could happen and he could become anyone he wanted. In the real world, all the possibilities seemed to be already reserved since the day he was born, all the assignments already made. But in the clamor and chaos of the rodeo, his dreams could spill onto the dirt and become reality. And I suppose that is why he often stood on the railing a moment before he got on the horse, ignoring the yells of chute-bosses telling him to hurry. He believed in the lights above the arena, and he would stare at them even if it meant he would never see the inevitable shadows that swirled all around. For he knew who he was, Shotgun Willy, the last son of the Old West and all its promises of freedom and escape. He was the ruler of the prarie, soaring high above the shimmering grass as a red-tailed hawk. There was nothing in this world that could stop him but himself. And as long as he chased the rodeos into the night, he could relive a sliver of his old glory again.
No one knows what exactly happened to Shotgun Willy in the years after the final rodeo folded. The time of man versus beast spectacle had fallen into distaste with Americans, who relegated their time to saccharine television shows that rendered their sensibilities too soft for bloodsport. The era of rodeo eventually ended, and the trails that once flowed like rivers to the large meccas of Amarillo and Cheyenne dried up. Some say Shotgun Willy gave up horses altogether and left for foreign jungles to hunt tigers. Others maintain that he retreated to a ranch somewhere and lived a quiet life until his passing. Those are all theories, but none of those people ever actually saw him go. I did. I saw him ride into the sunset on a nameless Saturday, spurs ringing and cowboy hat askew. He raised one hand in salute to the world, and at that very moment on the horizon, a twister touched down. When the storm passed, I didn’t see him anymore. And I suppose that was how God extends His hand to take a wild spirit home.