Life as a Ghost by Frank Siegrist - HTML preview
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As I was once driving home from my girlfriend’s place late at night, I had no idea that I had only minutes more to live. Of course, dying in a car-accident is always a possibility in this modern world, but this wasn’t even going to be a car-accident. Looking back, if I had survived it, what was going to happen to me in a moment could almost have seemed comic…
My girlfriend had called me in the evening, asking me to come straight away. She wouldn’t say why, just that it was important. Of course I immediately suspected that she was pregnant, the stupid bitch, although I couldn’t imagine how that could have happened, since we had always been careful. As it turned out, she almost certainly wasn’t (what a relief!), but she was wondering what would happen if she still was, or if she ever was. In other words, this whole matter was just an excuse so that we would talk about this most dreary and dreaded topics of all: is our relationship a serious one?
It’s always the same. I’ve gone through this kind of thing countless times… I guess it’s natural. The desire to have a child is hidden away in every woman, sometimes deeper, sometimes less deeply. When the time comes to have a child, she likes to have a man by her side who will take care of her and her child. And sometimes she wants to secure that man for herself even long before she’s even aware of possibly ever wanting a child. That’s because the whole thing is instinctual, and that means it just follows its course, whether you’re aware of it or not.
Just why a man would ever want to go for it, that has always been a mystery to me! Maybe if he thinks the coming child is really his own, that motivates him. But in actual fact, what difference does that really make? Children are interchangeable. Okay, okay, I know that a genetic trait can only survive if it somehow bolsters its own survival. The same applies to an instinctual program. An instinctual program that makes you take care of your own children (who will have inherited that very same instinctual program) will obviously bolster its own survival. On the other hand, an instinctual program that would make us neglect our own children would eventually die out, because the mechanism to make it survive in the next generation is missing.
Of course this is completely clear to me. It’s completely logical that we would have an instinctual mechanism that makes us want to produce lots of our own children, and that our ancestors certainly had it too, else we wouldn’t be here.
But the funny thing is that this instinctual program, being so successful at spreading itself, is now shared by virtually everybody. All children have it, never mind whether they’re our own or not. And this applies to all other instinctual programs too. It applies to all genetic traits. We all have virtually the same genome, with just a tiny bit of variation here and there, because for some (rare) genes there are several possible alleles. We can have blood-group A, B, AB or O. We can be black, white, yellow or brown or something in between. But deep down we are all exactly the same!
So why bother to have children? There are so many children everywhere already, and so many people looking after them. Why should I join that crowd? And why should I take care of any one particular child rather than any other, since they’re all the same anyway? Come to that, why should I fall in love with one particular woman?
Okay, okay, if I run after all women at once instead of concentrating on one particular one, I might end up never catching any. It’s probably sensible to choose one from among the crowd and run her down methodically. Maybe that’s why we fall in love (it’s just another of those instinctual programs that survives because it bolsters its own survival). But deep down, of course, all women are interchangeable, and all relationships evolve exactly the same way. First you feel high, then you feel less high, then you start wondering whether it’s serious or not, and then you break up.
Some are skinnier, some are rounder, some are fast, some are slow, but when yo u finally get down to it, they all taste the same, all the movements are the same, and the whole thing is just a program unwinding itself.
My problem is that I don’t see the point in the whole fucking business!
Although right now I seem to be having some other kind of problem. The needle of the fuel- gauge has been standing steadily on zero for many kilometers already. The warning diode has been flashing ever since I left home. I knew I should take petrol, but when my girlfriend called, saying that it’s so urgent, I just drove there straight away without stopping at a petrol station. After having talked and talked and talked, and when I finally managed to dismiss her with fake half-promises and sat back into my car at last (we hadn’t even fucked, so I really don’t know why this whole matter couldn’t just have been settled over the phone), I was already much too annoyed to remember that I should stop at a petrol station. Just when I entered the highway I became aware of that stupid flashing diode once again. There aren’t so many petrol stations along the highway, and they’re more expensive than the ones in town. I just had to hope that I would make it till the next one.
You’ve already guessed what happened next. The engine started sputtering, I pushed the gas harder but it didn’t respond, I pushed the clutch, and then there I was, rolling along in silence – the engine had died.
How could I let this happen? How could I be this fucking stupid? It was all my fucking girlfriend’s fault, of course, the stupid bitch!
I was on a bridge, there was no breakdown-lane. I switched on all four blinkers to warn the other cars. I let the car roll as far as it would go, then I pulled the hand-brake, had a quick look in the rearview- mirror (there was no other car nearby, luckily) and got out, dug out the luminescent triangle from the boot while nervously looking at the road behind me every few seconds, ran with it to a fair distance behind the car and set it up. Now I just had to wait for some nice guy to stop and give me a lift. Luckily this happened almost immediately. A car stopped in front of mine, a fattish, moon-faced young bloke got out and asked if he could help. I felt so ashamed to have to admit that I had run out of petrol! But he didn’t laugh. He asked me if I had a hose to pump some petrol from his car into mine. I answered that I didn’t, and he said he didn’t have one either, unfortunately. He offered me a ride till the next petrol station, and I accepted gratefully. I got into his car which somehow smelled of old socks, and he drove off.
“This never happened to me before!” I offered with an embarrassed smile. “Oh, you know, things like this can happen,” he answered philosophically, peering into the dark ahead of him while he seemed to be leaning over his steering whe el. I made no further effort at conversation, and neither did he.
He let me out at the next petrol station (which wasn’t even that far away), I thanked him and he drove off with a wave of one big paw.
I bought a canister, filled it with petrol and hitched a ride back to my car. This was easy, I just explained the problem to a young couple who were filling up their car, and they couldn’t really refuse. I sat behind the girl who strongly smelled of perfume, and nobody said a word. I just called out when I saw my car with the blinking indicators on the other side of the highway, but the guy had already seen it and slowed down. He stopped, I jumped out with my canister, and he quickly drove off again, since this really wasn’t a place to stop a car.
As I ran across to the middle of the highway, I saw a car stopping right behind mine on the other side, switching on brightly flashing blue lights. Fucking hell! The fucking police! Couldn’t they have just driven past a minute or so later, when I would already be safely on my way again? Now I would have to give them huge explanations, perhaps pay a fine… Fucking hell!
By this time I only had seconds more to live, but of course I didn’t know that yet. I jumped over the plank in the middle of the highway with my canister. It must have been quite funny for the policemen on the other side to see – one second I was there, the next I was gone!
You see, as I told you before, this part of the highway was on a bridge, an enormous bridge set up on tall, square, concrete pillars, very ugly - but you’re not really aware of any of that while driving on it, especially at night. The problem, in my case, was that actually there were TWO bridges, one for each direction, with a narrow gap between them. I fell right through that gap!
I can’t recall what I was thinking while flying through the air into the utter darkness below me, although I do remember holding on to that stupid petrol canister with all my might. I guess my last thoughts as a living human being must have been very trivial. Perhaps I was just thinking that this was the bad ending to a bad day. I guess I couldn’t really believe that I was really going to die. I mean, the whole thing was just really much too silly!
I lost consciousness on impact, but I regained it soon enough, it seemed to me. At first everything was dark, but by and by I could make out the outlines of some trees nearby, and then I saw myself as well, from above, as if I was hovering a meter or two above my own body…
Of course I had read about these out-of-body experiences that people supposedly have when they are close to death, and of course I didn’t believe they were in any way REAL – just some crazy images synthesized by the brain when it is deprived of an adequate supply of oxygen. And since we all have the same kind of brain, we also produce the same kind of images when we’re dying – there’s really nothing miraculous in this. Just it seemed to last a really long time, this out-of-body experience. I told myself that this might be because I was experiencing time differently. Maybe I was living through the last few seconds of my life as if they were an eternity.
Just how was it possible that I could still think so clearly? Maybe my brain wasn’t in such a bad state after all. Maybe I was going to survive.
But what about the rest of my body? I tried to feel my body, tried to “find” my toes, “feel” into them, but I couldn’t, as if I didn’t have any toes. I didn’t “find” any other parts of my body either. That meant I must have broken my neck – my brain wasn’t connected to the rest of the body anymore…
But then I should still have had fathom-sensations at least. Isn’t that what you’re supposed to feel? Don’t people go on “feeling” their arms and legs long after they were amputated?
How could I just not feel anything?
So now I looked at my body, which was sprawled out below me. It looked normal enough. I couldn’t really see where the damage was. Just the eyes were strange – wide open and staring. If I had seen anything through them, it should have been the tall highway bridge from underneath, and a bit of the night-sky, surely…
I wanted to blink, but nothing happened, as if I had forgotten how to do that. I just went on seeing that body below me, no change.
Eventually I still started seeing what I thought I should be seeing through those eyes – the highway above me, a bit of the night-sky covered by some twigs from the trees nearby. But in spite of that I didn’t stop seeing the body lying on the ground as well. It seemed I could see all the way around. All the way around a spot a meter or two above my body. It was very strange.
Eventually I started seeing people with flash- lights coming towards me through the underbrush. I tried to call out to them: “Here I am!” But of course no sound came. They bent over my body. One of them took my pulse and shook his head. As I was watching from above, they shone a flashlight straight into one of my eyes, but nothing happened. The man who had taken my pulse turned away, took a few steps away from my body and lit a cigarette.
This made me angry – weren’t they going to reanimate me or something? It seemed not.
After a while I was lifted onto a stretcher by two men wearing see-through plastic gloves, and I was carried off none too ceremoniously, down a slope through the bushes to a waiting ambulance.
The man with the cigarette had plenty of time to finish it before the ambulance drove off – they weren’t in any kind of hurry, it seemed. This infuriated me! I was obviously alive (else how could I see all this, and how could I think so clearly) and yet nobody seemed to care!
I was hovering above my body in the ambulance. Nobody had put an oxygen mask over my face or stuck any needles into me or whatever else they usually do to people in ambulances. Nobody was even looking at my body except me. The fucking shitters! After quite a drive the ambulance stopped at the rear entrance of a dark building, I was carried out on the stretcher by the same two men with the gloved hands, into the building, down a brightly- lit corridor towards a metallic door that looked like the entrance to a submarine or a space-capsule to me. The door was opened, I was carried inside and half dragged, half rolled from the stretcher onto a shiny metallic table inside a metallic chamber. I was left there and the submarine-door was shut behind me.
It was pitch dark, but somehow this didn’t stop me from “feeling” the shapes nearby. There was another body on a similar table further off. Else the chamber was empty. I didn’t feel the cold, but I knew this was a fridge for dead people.
So I was dead!
Of course I didn’t believe this for too long. If I could think, I must have had a functioning brain to think with, thus I couldn’t be dead. Surely I was just dreaming. The man shaking his head after taking my pulse, the trip in the ambulance without an oxygen mask, the brightly-lit corridor and the cold chamber at the end, all this wasn’t real. In a minute I would wake up in a freshly made hospital bed in a sparklingly clean hospital room and be greeted by the anxious faces of some selected relatives sitting around my bed, waiting for me to open my eyes at last! And I would tell them: “Pooooh, what a dream I had!” Or maybe even the fall from the highway-bridge was part of the dream. Then of course the whole drive home from my girlfriend’s place had to be part of the dream too. Maybe I hadn’ t left her that night, after all, and any minute now I would wake up to the agreeable sensation of getting my penis massaged!
But somehow I knew it wasn’t so.
A more ominous explanation came to my mind. Maybe everything was real, and it was taken for granted that I was dead, just I wasn’t! My brain was still working, and I would be dissected, then buried, alive!!!
I didn’t believe in this for very long either. I’m too realistic for such a belief. If my brain could produce such complex thoughts, then it must be properly oxygenated, which means that my heart must be pumping blood at a suitable rate and that my body must be breathing properly. These sturdy outward signs of life just couldn’t have remained undetected by the team who brought me here. It might be possible that someone would seem dead while he isn’t, but not while being fully conscious. That’s just absurd! So it was all a dream. It had to be. In a minute I would wake up, either in a hospital bed or in the arms of my girlfriend!
My thoughts were going back and forth like this when the door to the chamber was unlocked, then slowly, almost reluctantly, opened. Someone with a torch was coming in. He shone the beam of the torch around in the chamber, scratched his nose and was about to turn back when he suddenly hesitated.
Ah, ah! Maybe he could hear someone breathing! Maybe he could sense that my body (which was still a meter or two below me, as if I was hovering above it) was still alive. Hey, this would be fodder for a horror-story – the night-watchman suddenly realizing that he was not alone in the morgue!
He walked past me. He was a night-watchman alright, in a heavy, uncomfortable- looking uniform, a bag full of keys and other equipment hanging at his waist. He didn’t pay the slightest attention to my body. I was quite offended! Where on earth was he going? Aha, he was going to look at the other body, the body of a young woman… That would be something if you suddenly found someone in the morgue who m you thought was still alive! Could be his sister, or his girlfriend, who got run-over and brought here while he was doing his rounds!
No, his interest in that body was of a completely different nature. Inwardly I groaned. He couldn’t know that someone was watching his every move. He thought he was alone. Come on, he still wasn’t going to fuck that dead body, was he? I mean, what if they found some sperm-samples from him on it afterwards?
I suddenly realized I could sense his thoughts, somehow, or perhaps just his moods. In any case I suddenly felt something of what he was probably feeling. It was indistinct, but it was there. Vague feelings about which I was sure that they weren’t my own… Admiration. There was something like admiration in him as he moved his torch up and down that naked body. Admiration and even something like awe. Was he awed because she was dead, by the mystery of death? No, he was awed because in his eyes she was beautiful, a beautiful young woman…
For a split second there was something like pure innocence radiating from this bulky man in his bulky uniform with the bulky bags at his waist. Then his thoughts turned somewhat dirtier.
Hey, I felt like telling him, you’ve never seen a woman before, or what?
He was shining his torch straight a t her pussy and staring at it, as if he was trying to memorize the look of it. But hey, there really wasn’t much to see! He would have had to open her legs for that.
I was getting a really awkward feeling with this guy. I would have preferred if he had just taken that dead body and fucked it. Maybe it would have sort of excited me to see that. Something new for a change!
I tried to read into his thoughts some more. Perhaps I could even influence them? I was seeing the body of the woman from his point of view now. Without really noticing how it had happened I obviously wasn’t hovering above my own body anymore. It seemed I was somewhere in the head of that night-watchman now.
There, I seemed to have found a clear thought of his. It was a thought of a few minutes ago, not a fresh one, but it was the closest coherent one I could find. Something about winter-tyres, how he would get them fitted on his car next week. I tried to find something else, but there wasn’t really anything else, just a jumble of loosely associated fragments. It felt mostly like static noise.
Well, I must say, if I had been a night-watchman, having the whole night to myself like this, I would have had many interesting thoughts. Perhaps I would have gone over mathematical theorems in my mind. I would have run through thought-experiments like Einstein. Perhaps I would have eventually made a new breakthrough in General Relativity, what about that? Einstein wasn’t exactly a night-watchman, but he did have a rather boring job at the time when he invented his greatest theories!
But this particular night-watchman sure wasn’t any kind of Einstein. The only clear thought he had had all night was whether the time was right to get the winter-tyres fitted to his car. I guess you need to have a certain level of education to be able to run thought experiments in your mind. And if you have that kind of education, you don’t become a night-watchman.
Except that right now he was looking at that pussy.
Frankly, I don’t remember ever having looked at a pussy in quite this way before. I don’t even really remember when I saw a pussy in real life for the first time. I guess I had seen many in porno magazines before that, and I didn’t even bother to look properly when I was finally confronted with the real thing. I just pushed my dick into it and went in and out till I came, and it really wasn’t so special. Frankly, I don’t find pussies so exciting, nor girls for that matter. I must have found them exciting at some point, but that was really, really long ago. I keep ha ving to make up fantasy-stories so that I would be able to fuck them, else I get bored and perhaps in the end I couldn’t even do it anymore (though this has never happened so far…). For example, I imagine that I’m a little boy again, and that she’s my teacher, that stiff little lady who was my teacher once, and that it’s her pert little mouth I’m pushing my dick into. Or the little neighbour girl, once again when I was a little boy, the one who always had glossy little shoes and wouldn’t ever talk to me… I have a hard time inventing all these fantasies, and the real girl I’m working on becomes utterly meaningless to me in this process. But I always thought this was normal. Once you’ve had a selection of girls, you’ve had them all. Nothing is really new and exciting anymore, how could it be? But of course you still keep going at it, because what else could you do? You still have to empty those balls, it’s a physiological need! So you fall back on those old fantasies from the time when the world was still a big and mysterious place…
This night-watchman, uneducated, stupid and dull though he was, still had something I had lost long ago – for him a pussy, and indeed the whole body of a woman, was still a grand, indeed an almost sacred, thing! I would have liked to find out how this was possible. I would have stayed in his head longer if it had been bearable – just I really didn’t feel like analyzing the best time to fit winter tyres onto a car in more depth!
But he was still important to me, this night-watchman. After meeting him, I was convinced that I wasn’t dreaming. I couldn’t have invented such a guy all by myself, not even in my wildest dreams – he had to be real!
If he was real, then surely all the rest was real too. I wasn’t going to wake up in any hospital bed or in anybody’s loving arms. I was dead, and if I could still think, that’s because I had become a ghost!
And even if it wasn’t really true – I mean, perhaps my life beforehand as a living person hadn’t been really true either – it was still true eno ugh that I had to deal with it somehow, make something out of it. The only other thing I could have done was to stay right here and go insane with disbelief. I didn’t see that as an option, so I…
I just flew backwards in time! I can’t really say how I did it – I just did it! The nightwatchman went walking out of the chamber backwards, the chamber-door was shut, but with the wrong noises, a bit like the softly squeaking opening noises, but not quite that either, since they were played back in reverse… It was really like watching a film backwards! I found I could accelerate or slow down the process at will. The men who had brought me in came back to fetch me again, walking backwards, brought me back to the ambulance, which drove backwards to the place where I had been found… I suddenly had a wild hope – maybe I would live through my death in reverse! Maybe I would be re-united with my body!
I would live again, and this time I would know about the gap between the two highwaybridges – I wouldn’t fall through it again!
But then it occurred to me that if I was to be re-united with my body in the instant before death, that would be the instant before the impact, when I was flying through the air, utterly unable to do anything to save myself. Since I would surely lose the ability to move backwards in time as soon as I stopped being a ghost, I would just die again straight away…
I almost shied away from trying at all. But then I still did. I saw myself flying upwards (I mean falling in reverse), I saw the terrified, stupid grin on my face, but I didn’t dare to look into my mind to see what thoughts I had at that very moment. Anyway, soon enough I saw myself pop out through the gap between the two highways and fall back on my feet on the other side of the security plank. There was the police-car with the flashing blue lights standing on the other side of the highway, right behind my car.
So I hadn’t re-united with my body, after all. I was just a spectator.
The rest was pretty boring, so I flew over it faster. Soon I was watching myself driving the car and muttering curses under my breath about the fuel- gauge. Once again it was like watching a video of myself, but actually it was even worse, because I could go so close to myself as to see every wrinkle, the dirt- flakes in the corner of my eyes, the hairs inside my nose… It occurred to me that this is how my girlfriends had seenme, from this close and in this much detail. All these years all these various girlfriends had seen me like this, and I had never thought about it, had never been aware of it…
Then I started feeling for my thoughts, the thoughts in that head in front of me. There wasn’t so much there, or in any case nothing terribly interesting.
Perhaps I had half expected that now, as a ghost, I could probe into my subconsciousness and discover great secrets in there that I had never been able to access through ordinary introspection before. But it seemed I couldn’t, or maybe there just wasn’t really anything interesting there that I hadn’t known of before.
So perhaps, after all, I had judged the night-watchman and his winter tyres too harshly. I raised myself above that body of mine driving the car. I went right through the windshield, without feeling anything. For a while I hovered above the car, then hopped over to another car, lowered myself into it, inspected the driver, to see if he was more interesting than myself (which he wasn’t).
I didn’t really know what to do next.
For a start I started thinking. What was I? I always thought that thinking is what happens in the brain, and the brain is made of cells which are made of molecules. Now it seems I wasn’t made of molecules anymore, but I was still thinking. How could this be? Maybe my mind was somehow imbedded directly in the fabric of space-time, or in the fluctuations of virtual particles popping in and out of existence? What utter bullshit! Furthermore, even if it was true, how did my mind get there? If it was in my brain first, how did it suddenly go elsewhere? I mean, if you transfer things from one computer to another, you need all kinds of compatible hardware and software. There are “handshaking” protocols and such. In my case, my brain got shattered, but in that very instant all the information from it suddenly appeared elsewhere (where exactly?) in perfect working order. How can that be?
Or maybe thinking doesn’t even happen in the brain to start with, just like good old Descartes thought. But then how could neurotransmitter- like molecules in pill-form affect our moods, our feelings and our thoughts?
Or maybe it’s a special feature of the brain to be able to transmit its information content elsewhere, wirelessly. You know, telepathy!
Maybe, in the instant of death, my whole mind just got sent out of my brain, and now it’s elsewhere, imbedded in the fabric of the universe, still working, still thinking… Does this always happen when someone dies? If it does, where are all the other ghosts like me? Maybe they eventually all went insane from not being able to deal with the new situation, so they all degenerated and finally dissolved into nothing?
And what about my ability to travel through time? Since I could read other people’s thoughts, maybe I could influence them as well. What if I went back to myself, to the instant before I fell through the gap between the highways, and flashed some images of the gap to myself? Maybe that other me, the living me before I died, would look over the plank, see the gap and abstain from jumping into it? Then I wouldn’t die, which means I wouldn’t become a ghost capable of time-travel, which means I wouldn’t be able to warn myself about the gap, which means I would still fall through it and die. Which in turn would mean that I would become a ghost capable of time-travel and warning myself! It’s the time-traveler’s paradox!
I guess this paradox simply gets resolved by parallel universes. In one of them I die and become a ghost. By traveling back in time and saving myself, I create a new universe in which I don’t die. And so then there are two me’s, the me who didn’t die and goes on living normally, and the ghost from the parallel universe where I did die. Yeah, that’s how it must be…
You don’t like this idea of parallel universes? Well, let me tell you something! In Quantum Mechanics there is this interesting property called superposition. A particle can be in a certain state and its opposite at the SAME TIME, until you measure it, and then it suddenly clearly becomes one or the other. Well, you might say, who cares about particles?
A guy called Schrödinger put it this way: you have a device that measures the state of a particle, and depending on the outcome it triggers a gun that shoots an imprisoned cat or not. You put the whole thing (cat included) in a box that isolates it from the rest of the universe. As long as you don’t measure the state of the particle, it may be in a superposition of two states. Does this also mean that as long as you don’t look into the box, the cat is both alive and dead at the same time, in some kind of superposition of both these states?
Of course, as soon as you look into the box, the cat is either dead or alive, but what is it before you open the box?
Anyway, what is it that decides whether the cat should live or die?
For me, the answer is simple. Each time there is such a dilemma (each time you open that box) the universe separates into two parallel universes – in one of them the cat is alive, in the other dead.
You don’t like this idea? You don’t think you have any alter egos in parallel universes? Well, even if you forget all about Schrödinger’s cat, you still must have many alter egos. If the universe is infinite, then at some point it will have used up all possible arrangements of matter, and things will necessarily start repeating themselves. If it is truly infinite, which means that it goes on fo r ever, ever and ever, then all the possible arrangements of matter won’t just be repeated once or twice, but an infinite number of times, which means you have an infinite number of alter egos…
Or what if the universe isn’t infinite after all? What if it’s just a tiny bubble within a MULTI-verse?
Well, once all possible bubble-structures have been used up, they are bound to repeat themselves. You will find the same universes over and over and over again, infinitely. This makes you sick?
Wait, it gets even better: as I just said, there are infinitely many universes exactly like this one, with an alter ego of yourself in it doing and thinking exactly what you are doing and thinking right now. But there is also any number of universes where things are almost the same as here, but not quite. For every decision you make, there is an alter ego somewhere who had the same life as you up till now, except that now he makes exactly the opposite decision…
You are proud because today, out of a sudden impetus of friendliness, you helped the old neighbour lady carry home her heavy shopping bags?
Well, don’ t be so proud, because in some parallel universe you brushed past her impatiently!
You just miraculously escaped from a major accident? Don’t worry, in a parallel universe you happily died of it!
Whatever is happening, there are infinitely many universes in which the very same thing is happening too, and there are also infinitely many universes in which something different is happening. In some the cat is dead when you open the box, in others it’s alive. Whatever you decide, there are infinitely many universes in which you decided exactly the opposite.
So whatever you do, it doesn’t really matter, because - whatever it is - it must obviously happen somewhere. All the other options must happen too, so they just happen elsewhere. You say you don’t care about what happens elsewhere, you only care about what happens here? Well, that’s fine for you, because you have a body, so you always know what you mean by HERE (namely where your body happens to be). Me, I’m a ghost. I can travel through time. I can play with all the parallel universes. I can arrange for everybody to be killed, then I can go back in time and undo what I just did, knowing of course that the first option still goes on happening in the parallel universe I just left, and that it would still have happened even if I hadn’t intervened, because some parallel ghost would have done it in my place, somewhere in this multiverse of infinite possibilities… Yes, really, maybe everybody becomes a ghost like me when they die, and they all see what I’m seeing now, and it drives them insane. They go so completely insane that they just disintegrate, and that’s why I haven’t met any fellow-ghosts yet, even though all human minds tha t ever existed should be around somewhere around here… On the other hand, what if I can’t influence other people’s thoughts after all? What if I can just read them? What if I’m just a spectator?
According to General Relativity, time is just a dimension of “space-time”. A fourth dimension in addition to the three spatial ones that we all know. Every particle in the universe can be plotted on a four-dimensional graph – three of the dimensions indicate where it is, and the fourth indicates at what time it is there. All particles of the universe can be plotted like that, and you get an infinite four-dimensional landscape of dots… In this landscape nothing moves – it’s frozen solid, unchangeable, spread out to all sides of you once and for all.
Imagine a foot-ball flying through the air. In actual fact it isn’t flying at all. It’s just standing there in mid-air. You can look at it from all sides by moving through the spatial dimensions. You can also look at where it was a moment before and where it will be a moment later by moving along the time-dimension. Like this you can get an idea of the shape of its trajectory. It’s as if you were in some kind of museum – you can look at the paintings in chronological order to get an idea of the evolution of painting-styles and techniques, but you can also look at the paintings in any other order. The point is – nothing moves and the past, the future and the present are all there at once. In fact there isn’t any past, present or future. The flow of time is just an illusion yo u get by looking at the pictures in chronological order and by flipping from one to the next at a steady rate. So is this it? Is this how I’m going to spend the rest of my existence? Looking at pictures in this endless picture gallery, seeing happy faces, sad faces, knowing that they’re all frozen solid and that they’ve been there for ever and will remain there for ever in this eternally dusty museum called space-time?
Hey, you sure don’t need to think about such things when you’re not a ghost, do you? While I was thinking all this I was speeding along on the dashboard of a car. I was experiencing the flow of time because I had chosen to move forward in time at a steady rate. In the meantime my body must have fallen through the gap, died and been brought to the morgue all over again.
Well, the time had come to find out if I had any influence over anything or not. Was I able to create parallel universes (or move into them, which amounts to the same thing since they all exist anyway) or was I trapped in this particular “space-time” for ever? In other words – this car speeding along steadily on the highway, could I make it crash if I wanted to?
I “felt” myself into the mind of the driver, and then I suddenly said as loudly as I could: “Hey you!”
The eyes of the driver almost popped out of their sockets. “What? What?” he stuttered, as if he had just woken up from a bad dream. “Is… is anyone there?” He looked around himself, at all the empty seats in his car.
“Right!” I said to myself. I withdrew from the driver’s mind and didn’t talk to him anymore. There wasn’t any need to make this car crash, after all. What had just happened was proof enough that I could influence things!
So I could do things. The question now was what should I do? Just have fun? But even in fun- games there is always a goal (in football it’s even quite literal – people almost fall off their seats yelling “Goaoaoaoaoallll!!!!”).
So what should be my goal in this existence of mine as a ghost? I knew I needed to have one, else I’d go insane in no time at all…
Somehow this question about the goal rang familiar to me, like an echo from my previous life as a human being made of flesh and blood. It’s kind of a religious question, isn’t it? Maybe, now, as a ghost, I could find the answer at last. I could find God. I could fly through outer space, into alternative universes, see black holes and supernovae from close, explore the infinitely big and the infinitely small, find out if space is made of space quanta or if it’s continuous, translate it all into sc ientific terms and inspire the next Einstein with it so that he could develop the ultimate grand unified theory of Everything…
And I would also find out what I myself, as a ghost, was made of.
There was just one thing I would never be able to find out, a nagging little detail, namely whether all this was real or just a dream I was dreaming. The question was surely meaningless, since there was no way it could ever be answered. But if it was meaningless, then why could I ask it at all? Why could I wonder about it, be bothered by it, maybe to the point of going insane?
Because if everything was just a dream of mine, which means that everything was created by me, then obviously I must be God. And if I was God, then how come I didn’t have all the answers?
Or what if God was a silly little boy (or girl) from a higher-degree universe? In between throwing around his toys, he somehow creates a world or two. If you ask him why he did it like this and that, he just looks at you the way children do, and tells you something mystifying that you’ll never be able to make sense of.
The goals, the question is about the goals. But what if God told you to just make your own? Somehow this answer wouldn’t really satisfy you, would it?
You want to know the point of the whole thing, don’t you?
But what if God just looked at you and said: “Point, what kind of point? What do you mean?”
There are all kinds of things in a world. That’s what being a world really means, that there would be all kinds of things. It’s not just a point. What kind of point do you want? Yeah, really, what’s the point of this question about a point?
And that’s the REAL question!
There’s no point in looking for God among the supernovae, black holes and parallel universes. You’ll see all kinds of marvelous things, of course, but you’ll still never know what the point of it all might be, simply because you can’t really define what kind of a point you would want there to be… You don’t really know what you’re looking for! So if you want to find that point, you must first think about what it actually is you’re looking for. And since other people seem to be looking for the same, you can try to find out what THEY are looking for.
And this means staying among people.
I was suddenly afraid of flying out to outer space. What if I never found my way back to Earth, to all those little Earthlings looking for a point?
So I decided to stay here.
I could hop from the mind of one person to the mind of another, sort of zapping through mankind, but somehow this didn’t seem appealing. I’d rather concentrate on a single human being for a while, but which one? It should be an interesting one… Instead of switching between the TV-channels all evening you’d rather watch an interesting film from beginning to end, wouldn’t you? It’s the same thing! Then, talking about films, I suddenly remembered that I had always loved Westerns. Well, now was my chance to go and explore the Wild West, for REAL!
I jumped over to a car that was driving towards the airport, and I jumped from person to person till I was in a queue for a flight to New York. I got into the plane with a group of people, and most of the flight I stayed with them. At some point I went out of the plane to witness the air rushing past the fuselage, the blinking lights on the wings, but then I went back inside. I could have flown on to America on my own, alongside the airplane, or higher up or lower down (even skimping above the ocean-waves if that’s what I had wanted), or faster or slower, but somehow I was scared of getting lost (even though I would have had all the time in the world to find my way again), so I stayed with the plane, had a look in the cockpit and in other hidden places where passengers can’t normally go…
After landing in New York I joined the traffic going west. It took a while till I got onto a highway that seemed promising, but then I just stayed in a car with some people and relaxed. When that became too boring, I jumped out of that car and hopped from car to car along the highway. When that became too boring too, I just flew above the highway at my own speed.
I spent many hours like that.
Then, at some point I decided the landscape looked suitable enough (I sort of wanted it to look like the setting for a Western-film, you see). There were rolling hills in the distance, a pleasant river merging into a small lake, some farm- houses with old cars and other miscellaneous equipment rusting in their backyards…
It was perfect!
I left the highway, flew around a bit till I found a big boulder which must have rested in this very same position for ages and sat myself onto it. Then I started going backwards in time, faster and faster and faster. The days flicking past gave an unpleasant, stroboscopic effect, but as I accelerated further the light started smoothing out to some kind of uniform grey. For a while I couldn’t tell anymore how fast I was going, but then I began to sense the differences in temperature as the seasons flew past. I even felt the snow cover up the boulder (and thus me) at quick intervals, like a gentle pat.
Snow-cover was perhaps not the most reliable sign of winter, but the lower temperature was. I chose a speed at which I could clearly feel the regular temperature-fluctuations of the passing years, and I started counting the peaks of cold.
I counted till hundred- fifty. It took a while, because I didn’t dare to go so fast that the temperature-fluctuations would become blurred. But it didn’t take so terribly long either. Anybody can count till hundred-fifty – it’s really not that much! This just shows you that the wild, wild West really isn’t all that terribly far away.
I slowed down the time-travel and finally stopped one early morning at some point in the middle of the nineteenth century…
It was perfect! Where I had seen the farm- houses there was a whole little town, a Western town! Many small buildings with disproportionate fronts showing towards the one street (nothing more than a dirt-strip, actually) going through the town. Wooden porches, pegs to tie the horses, and there was even a saloon with those typical swing-doors you see in all the westerns!
This was my dream-place! It was still early in the morning, and the place seemed very quiet and peaceful. There was some smoke rising from the chimney of one or two houses, and I could hear a cow mooing somewhere, quite insistently, to be milked, I guess. Else there was nobody about.
I started checking out the houses, seeing what kind of people were living here, and some vague suspicion started dawning in me – what if nothing exciting was ever going to happen in this place? All these people were just doing their best to put bread on the table and raise their kids if they had any. That’s all I could see. Maybe the Wild West wasn’t the exciting place it was made out to be in the films, after all?
The top-cat in town, the gun-smith, seemed to have more ambitions – he was rich and planning to get even richer. He had a handsome son with burning dark eyes (a gun-slinger to be, maybe?) and a lovely daughter. Promising? Who knows…
At the other extreme of the social scale of this town there were a sheep- farmer and his wife with just one son. There was lots of bitterness here, and as far as I could tell the boy was mostly at the receiving end of all this bitterness.
Some intuition told me that this might be what I was looking for – a young boy, gradually turning into a man, with a lot of frustrations to deal with, piled onto him by his parents. There were signs already that he was rather introverted, a bit of a dreamer, not especially popular with his school- mates. He might end up a drinker, looking old and worn before his time. Or he might one day rebel against his destiny and become a fighter! Having a spirit like me to look after him might make all the difference!
So I nest led myself in his forehead and started looking at the world how he saw it.
Tom Miller was born sometime in the middle of the nineteenth century in the Wild West. His parents both came from the bourgeoisie in the Old World that they had left behind more than a generation ago for unclear reasons. Since they themselves had never lived in the Old World, the New World by now wasn’t quite new anymore. There were already plenty of cast- iron family- traditions and principles.
They owned a little farm. The father sheared the sheep and the mothe r peeled the potatoes. That was their life.
They hadn’t had any children for a long time, and they were worried that nobody would inherit their little business. But then the woman became pregnant when she was close to forty and had given up hope. The man was already fifty by then. Tom remained an only child and was guarded like some kind of special treasure.
Their closest neighbours were the Davidsons. The whitewashed mansion of the Davidsons stood between the Millers’ little farm and the nearby town.
The Davidsons owned the arms-shop in town and were very rich. They despised all small farmers. They despised weaklings in general. They liked the tall, lanky cowboys who sometimes came through town with herds of countless cows – these hard men were the Davidsons’ best customers. Whoever went into the arms-shop smelling of sweat and whiskey always got much more attention than the respectable and conservative locals. Sometimes a group of men without cows came through town. Silent men with dark faces who never took off their hats. They hardly spoke and never stayed long, but they all stopped at the arms-shop.
When a man of this kind was in his shop, Mr. Davidson whizzed around like a half-crazy bee. He was a pot-bellied little man, and in actual fact he resembled these favoured customers of his even less than his disdained neighbour, old Miller, did.
Nevertheless Davidson was rich (while Miller wasn’t) and he didn’t need to lower himself to stupid sheep!
The contempt was mutual anyway. The Millers’ stance was that firearms were something very BAD. In their eyes it was a scandal that the sheriff allowed such objects to be sold to suspicious passer-bys. Of course they stood by their beliefs publicly. Their way of despising the Davidsons was not to despise them at all but simply to count them among the BAD people.
But that was just their public stance. In reality the Millers didn’t at all care if banks in other towns got robbed. Their own town was too small and unimportant for anything exciting to happen, and the Millers didn’t care about anything further afield anyway. The only spices in life were the feuds between neighbours, and that, together with the Millers’ bitterness at being poor, was probably the real reason for this mutual contempt. In age, the Davidsons stood almost a whole generation below the Millers. They had a son who was two years older than Tom and a daughter who was pretty much Tom’s age. The boy’s name was Jack, and he was the darling of his mother. As a small child he already got fine clothes and alwa ys wore proper shoes, which wasn’t usual among the kids. He wasn’t allowed to play with Tom, but since he was very aware of his higher status he wouldn’t have done that anyway.
The girl’s name was Theresa, and since she had been a little bit fat and clumsyas a toddler, her mother was much less pleased with her than with her brother Jack, and this feeling remained even as she grew out of her baby- fat. So she was dressed quite plainly, like a normal girl, and even though she wasn’t supposed to play with Tom either, nobody especially bothered to stop her. She was Tom’s friend.
Tom’s parents didn’t have anything against their sunny-boy playing with the children of the Davidsons, because (their public stance again) it wasn’t those poor children’s fault that theyhad such awful parents (feeling – or pretending to feel - pity for the poor kids of the Davidsons was of course another indirect way of despising them).
At the edge of the town there was a small lake which also served as a water supply in this somewhat desertic region. On their way home from school, Theresa and Tom could either walk through the main street of the town or take the way along the lake. Since Theresa’s parents weren’t supposed to see them together, they usually walked along the lake. Often they walked through the deliciously cool water.
Tom would have liked to splash Theresa and himself, but then what would Theresa’s mother have said if Theresa had come home with wet clothes?
Theresa would have liked to jump into the water, whole, and then let her body be carried by it. She had a tremendous urge to do it – while running along the edge of the lake, kicking up muddy fountains, she practically became dizzy with that urge to just let herself fall into it!
One day Tom told her how well he could swim. He had learned it from his father, in the pond behind the house. Theresa immediately went mad with enthusiasm and asked him, how that feels to be totally immerged in the water.
“It’s as if you could fly,” said Tom. “I can teach you,” he added generously. “Oh yes, please!” Theresa exclaimed. But then she looked down at her bare, wet feet. When bathing you get wet, don’t you?
“Well, you have to put on a bathing suit,” said Tom.
“Do you have a bathing suit?” asked Theresa.
“I don’t need one at home with only my parents around,” answered Tom. “My mother should teach me to swim,” Theresa pondered, “but she can’t swim herself.” Theresa didn’t say more that day. Soon the two kids had to go their separate ways, back to their respective homes.
The next day, on the way home from school, Theresa groaned that it was terribly hot and that she was all sweaty. Then, just before the house of her parents came in sight, she finally said:
“Today I want to take a bath. But you must only look when I’m already in the water!” “I promise,” said Tom and looked away.
A long while later he heard her voice again: “Do you think this will dry again?” Tom didn’t really know what she was talking about, so he answered laconically: “No idea.”
“Do you think I can go into the water like this?”
“Well,“ she finally said, hesitantly, “turn around, please…”
Tom turned around and saw a half- naked girl for the first time. Her body wasn’t very different from the body of a little boy, but Tom still felt sort of… honoured… (was that what he felt?) to see her almost whole like this. He felt a sudden surge of tenderness (yes, he felt it was tenderness) for his little friend.
But he really had no idea whether that stuff she was still wearing would dry or not. Theresa wondered if maybe she shouldn’t keep anything on at all. This forbidden thought was somehow exciting, and at the same time it also seemed to her that it wasn’t really anything quite so bad either, after all.
Tom had to turn around once more and wait till she called him again.
She did, and he turned around and saw her underwear lying carefully folded next to her dress. Theresa was already in the water up till the shoulders, and she stood quite still, as if she were afraid of drowning any moment.
“Now you don’t look,” said Tom.
Theresa looked away from the water’s edge. Now all she saw was the wide expanse of water in front of her, the sun sparkling on little wavelets, and she hoped her feet wouldn’t lose their grip in the soft sand.
Tom undressed and was soon standing in the water next to her. He saw her skin, nothing but her skin from head to toe, shimmering whitely under the water.
He showed her the swimming movements. Then Theresa collected all the courage she could muster and put her face under water. With her head under water she let go of the sandy ground with her feet. The water pushed her legs up.
Flying. Yes, this was like flying!
Tom put his hand against her belly and she made the swimming movements. Yes, she really advanced a little!
Tom let her body glide past his hand. He only felt smooth skin. He didn’t become aware of anything between her legs, but he still got a strange feeling, strange but good. Somehow he had guessed at her sensitivity there.
Theresa had put her feet down again. “Stop it – it’s ticklish!” she said, but not angrily. She sounded rather happy.
She made a few more swimming tries, and Tom put his hand under her belly again. “But now we must get out of the water,” she said, “else we won’t have time to dry.” He turned around and looked into the distance. Theresa got out of the water, sat down in the sand and pulled her legs up close to her body. Then she called “Tom, you can come!” and lowered her head into her arms.
Tom came out of the water and saw her there, without any clothes, but of course sitting in such a position that there wasn’t really anything to see. He sat down in a similar way and allowed her to look up.
For a while they sat like that on the beach.
Finally Tom said: “Like this we will never get dry!”
It was definitely necessary to stretch out a bit, or maybe they just wanted it that way. Of course it seemed really forbidden, but at the same time so totally natural. At first they kept a hand between their legs and hardly looked at each other. They talked to each other lying on their backs and looking up into the bright sky, and they eventually allowed that hand to slip away. They promised each other solemnly that everything they were doing here was their common secret. There were a few furtive glances at each other, hoping the other one wouldn’t notice, but then their eyes met, they exchanged a little giggle or two and a long smile, and then they stopped keeping up pretences of not seeing or not wanting to see each other…
The whole thing was exotically adventurous!
Theresa and Tom were eight years old when they started swimming in the lake together. It became a daily tradition in early and late summer, while it was warm enough and school was on, and they kept it up till the age of twelve. After the school-holidays in this fateful year the tradition some how wasn’t taken up anymore. Somehow it just didn’t happen again. Tom didn’t dare to ask Theresa directly. Nowadays she walked home along the street through town, and Tom couldn’t talk to her freely anymore. Either he would have run the risk of being overheard, or he would have had to make it much too obvious that he wanted to be alone with her. The very special relationship between them just dried out.
In the meantime school had become boring.
Tom was almost a man now. Men don’t go to school – they concernthemselves with real life.
But what is real life?
Tom had such strange thoughts lately, and he also somehow felt lonesome. When you’re alone you can’t feel good for too long. Even when you’ve exposed the very last patch of your skin to let the wind touch it, even then you don’t want to be alone. To feel as if you were flying – to perceive your surroundings from all sides, unimpeded by any piece of clothing, as if you were submerged in them, like a fish in the water or a bird in the air.
The ground - which holds on to your feet and stops the soles from feeling the air - also takes away the feeling of being a wholeness. In everyday life there is always some part of your body that feels something different than the rest of your body.
You feel your clothes, or in any case the ground you are standing on, unless you dive into the water naked, or plunge into the emptiness from the edge of a cliff.
But you can’t stay like that for very long, floating freely in the air or in the water (either because you fall down or because you need to breathe).
So you must take another person into the water with you, and when the fabulous experience is over, you can hold on to her, because she was there too, and she will take you there again another time.
Lying naked on his bed, his bed-sheet covering him from head to toe, Tom wriggled like a worm, and that’s how he reached the elusive feeling of floating freely within a continuous medium. But this feeling never lasted long – suddenly Tom felt something peculiar, something like a twitch going through his whole body. Then it was all over. The excitement that had felt like joy waned, and usually Tom easily fell asleep after that. And this nightly experience too had this special exotic fragrance, mysterious and adventurous, of something forbidden.
One fine day Tom asked himself where his name, Tom, came from. His mother explained to him that one of his great-grandmothers had never been married. She had been the governess in the household of a French nobleman, a count. This count’s name had been Thomas, and he had conceived Tom’s maternal grandmother who had sworn that her first male descendant should be named after this count, her father. That was Tom Miller. Tom wasn’t going to tell this wonderful story to any of his friends, of course. They were liable to start calling him “count Miller”, or even better: “Count of the mill”! So it seems that somewhere deep down Tom’s parents had a romantic disposition, and the story of their son’s name was actually just as ridiculous as the grand façade of the Davidsons’ gun-shop, behind which the actual building was little more than a roomy shed.
You wouldn’t need to be so critical, of course – all the houses in town showed towards the street with a stunning façade, and that’s what made the street colour ful. The problem with the Millers was that they despised such fake masks and always pointed out that the Davidsons were hoodwinking their customers with the grand appearance of their shop.
But what about their own soppy perception of being related to a count? Wasn’t that the same kind of façade behind which there wasn’t much substance?
Tom had become critical. For his own good it would surely have been better to accept the sentimental story about his name with joy, just as one should be happy about the colo urful façades of the town, without feeling cheated by them!
The Millers only had one horse, a mare named Bess who had to pull a small wagon to town every day. You couldn’t ride her, because her former owner had hit her so badly that she had become scared and unpredictable. She twitched and kicked when you tried to touch her. Old Miller always kept the whip within reach when he went into the stable. She was always tied up in there, and she was only ever let off that string when she was already fully harnessed. She wasn’t ever led to pasture, because then you couldn’t have caught her again. Needless to say, nobody ever brushed her either.
Tom got a bit older, and he wished he had a riding- horse. Many of his class- mates could ride, and some of them already had their own horses.
When Tom told his parents about his wish, they answered they didn’t have money for that, and besides they weren’t the kind of parents who totally spoil their children by giving them everything they want right from the crib onwards. “You must learn to earn your own keep, as well as any extras, with honest, hard work, just like your father did.” Tom understood the argument about the money, but that his parents would want to make their poverty into a virtue, that just made him sick.
He asked himself angrily how he would ever have time to learn to ride, if he had to work to get his own horse. And how would he find work in the first place if he couldn’t even ride?
How could the Miller- family ever work its way out of poverty if every generation started from nothing?
The ideal of the self- made man is temptingly heroic, but it’s wrong. Human beings are born as helpless babies, and for a start everything they have comes from their parents. First they need to get an education (and learning to ride a horse is part of that). Only then can they go out and conquer the world.
How did the Davidsons get where they were now? The grandfather had worked hard and introduced his son to the business, which he then left him. The next in line was Jack. One day he would be an important man in town, while Tom would forever have to be contented with the sheep on the humble farm of his parents.
Couldn’t you go as far as saying that Tom’s ancestors had been too lazy and had thus condemned him to live in poverty?
Only Tom’s sons – if he ever had any – might perhaps have a better life thanks to Tom’s hard work. Tom knew that he would give his children everything he could, if he ever had any.
He cursed the “honour of the self- made man”, something in which his ancestors seemed to have believed for countless generations. He would very much rather have had the money of the Davidsons than the honour of the Millers.
Such were the musings of this young teenager as he walked into the stable, imagining how it would be if his very own horse lived here. He couldn’t avoid seeing the stupid mule of his parents in there. Actually, if you took a closer look you could see it wasn’t even a mule at all. It was a mare. She could have been a good horse, but they got her cheap because her character was ruined. Her coat was white with light-brown spots, like the skin of an Irish girl. Altogether she really made the impression of a bullied, shy and snot-nosed girl. Her unkempt hair partly covered her milky, freckled face with the big, brown eyes. Besides she was skinny, as if she suffered of anorexia.
“Just go into the stall with her!”
Tom turned around in surprise, to see who had spoken to him. There was no one. There was silence. Just the buzzing of a fly somewhere in the back of the stable. Had he really heard someone speak? It wasn’t possible, was it? The voice had been right there in his ear. Someone could have been around here somewhere without him noticing, but surely not that close to his ear.
He looked at the horse and wondered whether she had spoken, like in a fairy tale? But only her buttocks would have been close enough. Besides he had heard the voice of a man – he was sure of that much.
Just go into the stall with her, that’s what he had said. And why not? Of course his parents didn’t allo w him to do that, but he was gradually becoming a man now. A man shouldn’t always do only what his parents allow him.
He opened the little door to her stall and stepped in. The horse immediately squeezed into the far corner as much as was possible, held up her head, pushed back her ears, bared her teeth, opened and wobbled her nostrils fearfully. The brown eyes looked panicky. A perfect picture of a girl about to be raped (Tom had never seen a girl about to be raped – where on Earth did this image come from?).
Tom came closer, then he stretched out his hand. The horse’s head flew at it, but before she could bite she had already pulled it back again with a jerk to avoid the whip. But today there was no whip. The outstretched hand was still there – it hadn’t moved. The horse scrutinized the hand and the boy to which it belonged warily from the side. After a while she cautiously brought her head closer. She sniffed at the hand. There wasn’t just the smell of the boy, but also of something else, something from a previous life, long ago – the smell of sugar. There was a pinch of sugar in Tom’s hand. Since he was such a fan of horses, whenever he could get his hands on some sugar he always took some with him to give to the horses he met on his way to school.
Memories of forgotten times floated through the horse’s mind. She reacted as she would have reacted in those by-gone days – she laid her soft muzzle in Tom’s hand and took the sugar.
When the sugar was gone, Tom tried to pat her nose. She was immediately back in the present. She pulled her head away with a jerk. She pulled it back so far that she looked twice as tall as before. Tom retreated from the startled animal and sat down in the straw. He sat there daydreaming for quite a while.
Then he got up, talked to the horse soothingly for a moment, wished her a good night and left the stable.
The next day Tom went back to the horse. This time he went closer to her to give her the sugar. While she was eating the sugar, he carefully stroked her side with the other hand. The day after she accepted to be touched by him so easily that he took out a brush and brushed her and combed her mane and her tail. She even obediently lifted her feet so that he could scratch out the hooves. Long ago she had learned to eat sugar from a human hand and to let herself be groomed by human hands. The hooves had been badly neglected – they were foul and without horseshoes. Tom was a bit shocked, but whatever else had he expected?
How strange that he had never before taken interest in this horse living under the same roof as him! But his parents had always warned him not to go too close to this big, vicious animal. Besides, little Tom had only ever seen the horse as she was being handled, or rather mishandled, by his father, and then she had really only ever been a fearful monster. But now she was tame, brushed and clean and looked quite neat. In the afternoon Tom’s dad took the horse, and when he came back from town with the cart in the evening, Tom hoped he would comment on the surprising cleanness of the horse. Then Tom would proudly tell him how he had made friends with her. Dad came home, took the horse to the stable, and suddenly wild neighing and a loud knocking sound could be heard, then a scream and finally loud swearing. Soon after that, dad came into the house.
“Fucking mule!” he mumbled between clenched teeth. He was supporting himself with a stick. His right leg hurt terribly. The horse had kicked out and hit him.
The doctor was called for to look at the leg – it was broken. He tied it in between two wooden planks.
At supper dad said: “We can’t keep that mule. Tomorrow I’ll get rid of it!” “You can’t do that!” Tom called out, alarmed.
“Shut up, I’m talking to your mother,” answered dad.
Tom had never been able to withstand his father’s gaze, but now he still gave it a try. He looked straight into his father’s eyes and said, fast but distinctly: “I’ll saddle and ride Bess!”
Mom quickly interrupted: “But that’s much too dangerous!”
Dad hit the table with his fist, just once, hard: “How dare you say something like that, son?! Off to bed with you!”
He grabbed Tom by the arm, pushed him into his room and locked the door. Tom couldn’t sleep for a long time. He was thinking of Bess, who was supposed to be gotten rid of the next day. He thought about what he could do. The only idea that came to him was to flee with the horse. He knew where the old saddle and the reins were kept. But the door was locked, and if he tried to flee through the window, his parents would hear. Besides, he didn’t know how to saddle a horse, let alone how to ride… He fell asleep in despair.
When he came home from school the next day, Bess was still in her stable, alive and well. Later he heard from his school- mates that dad had tried to sell her. But nobody had wanted to buy the randy mule of the Millers. Dad had been laughed at and was thus in a very bad mood. He couldn’t afford to just shoot the fucking animal, because he didn’t know how he would ever get the money for a new horse.
So Bess stayed with the Millers. Now Tom looked after her, but she still wasn’t allowed out to graze, and dad treated her more cautiously but still just as badly as ever. Nobody ever rode her, because nobody showed Tom how to saddle a horse.
One day a group of cowboys passed through town with several wild horses. The horses were put in a paddock belonging to the Davidsons and offered for sale. The paddock became a market place. People were discussing prices and making deals with the cowboys.
Tom went there often to watch. Normally the Davidsons didn’t want him on their land, but nobody noticed him in that crowd.
Among the horses there was a huge, pitch-black stallion with broad, muscular shoulders and fiery eyes. But he wasn’t for sale anymore – the Davidsons wanted him for themselves.
Tom got sick with jealousy when he heard one day that the stallion had become Jack’s personal horse. Jack, who was already an excellent rider, was breaking in the wild animal himself.
When Tom told a classmate that he too had a horse of his own, the classmate didn’t believe him. Everybody in town knew how poor the Millers were. They were at one end of the scale while the Davidsons were at the other.
When Tom was a small boy, he hadn’t known that yet. The older he got, the more he was made to feel that his family was the poorest in town.
Tom’s classmate came home with him to see his horse. Tom’s parents didn’t like their boy to bring home friends, but on this particular day they were both away, exceptionally without having taken the cart. So Tom was free to show Bess to his classmate. “But this has always been your horse!” exclaimed the classmate. He sure had a quick mind.
“Of course,” said Tom, “but she has never been ridden before. I want to show you that she’s a real riding-horse!”
Tom fetched the saddle and the reins. With his sleeve he brushed the thick layer of dust from the back of the old saddle which hadn’t been used for years.
“Would you saddle her please?” asked Tom.
“Are you crazy? Everybody knows why your father limps.”
“How would they know that?”
“Well, it started on the day when he tried to sell the horse.”
Tom was about to answer that this was a lie spread by malevolent people. But he knew it wasn’t a lie. Bess had kicked out and hit his father’s right shin. It wasn’t Tom’s business to defend his parents aga inst lies that weren’t lies. They always went on about how they hated falseness and deceitfulness – well then, that meant the fact that old Miller had been kicked by his own horse shouldn’t be disguised either!
Besides, Tom felt bitter towards his father for treating Bess so badly. It was a just punishment that now he had to limp for the rest of his life.
Perhaps Tom was partly to blame for the accident, because Bess had got part of her selfconfidence back through him… But Tom didn’t feel guilty. Rather, he was proud that he had overtaken his father in this respect.
Nevertheless he still hated to be the son of the man who had made himself ridiculous in the whole town.
Tom went into Bess’ stall. Bess had been looking at her visitors nervously all the while. She trusted Tom, but the other human was a stranger. She was startled when she saw Tom come staggering into the stall with the heavy saddle in his arms. Her whole body started twitching, she was prancing around, pulling up her head, tearing at her lead. Tom saw the whites of her eyes as she was looking over to him from the side. But Tom moved very slowly, like a sleepwalker. Bess calmed down. She knew Tom. The object he was carrying wasn’t familiar, but the stranger had stayed outside of her stall. In a stranger’s hands such a strange object would have made her panic, but she had some trust in Tom.
Tom held the saddle under her nose as though he were a polite waiter showing an exquisite roast to a guest before cutting it up. Bess sniffed at it for a long time. Then, with a slow, almost drowsy movement, Tom pulled the saddle back towards himself, lifted it up and gently let it sink on the back of the horse.
Bess had quieted down. The stranger obviously had no intention of coming into her stall, and she wasn’t afraid of Tom. The feeling of being saddled was vaguely familiar to her, and so she let it happen, a bit as if she were in a dream.
“Does this look okay?” asked Tom.
“Much too far back!” answered his classmate.
Under his supervision, Tom managed to saddle Bess. He hesitated a bit when he was supposed to tighten the belt as fast as he could, but Bess didn’t seem to mind. She let the reins be pulled over her head and willingly took the bit into her mouth.
Now Tom untied the lead and led the horse out of the stall and out of the stable! Bess sniffed at the fresh air with her head held up high and was about to run off. Tom talked to her soothingly while at the same time putting some weight into the reins, and she calmed down. She even made the impression (to To m, at least) of being a bit embarrassed. Tom pulled down the left-side stirrup, put his left foot into it, held on to Bess’ mane and swung himself into the saddle.
Wow, this sure was far off the ground!
He set the length of the stirrups so that his classmate felt it looked right.
Now he gently pushed his heels into the horse’s tummy. Bess went off at a trot. Tom got shaken in the saddle like a bag of potatoes. He held on to the saddle-button and to the mane of the horse. He was going to fall off any moment.
“Pull on the reins!” his mate called out to him from afar.
Tom grabbed the reins and pulled on them a bit, but he had to let them go again immediately because he was losing his balance entirely and had to cling on to the neck of the horse.
But Bess had reacted to the pressure in her mouth straight away and was now going at a leisurely walk. Tom straight away felt better. He managed to sit upright and took the reins in his hand. He felt the movements of the mighty muscles of the horse’s back working under him. He tried to catch the rhythm and let his pelvis move along with the horse, and soon he had a marvelous sensation of drifting or floating high above the ground quite effortlessly.
Bess was walking into town. The Davidsons’ mansion was already gliding past them. Bess went on calmly. They reached the houses of the actual town. The imposing façades appeared on both sides of the street, although of course they looked a bit smaller than usual from up on a horse. To Tom they all looked as if they had been freshly painted today, because he was so thrilled about everything! There was a fresh little wind going through his hair, and it felt so invigorating! The sky was bluer than it had ever been before! The whole world was crisp, shiny and cheerful like a young girl on her wedding day!
Tom was weightlessly gliding over this world. They came to the end of the town. A little pull to one side on the reins, a little shift of his body in the saddle, a little bit of asymmetrical pushing with his heels into the belly of the horse, and Bess was obediently going around the last house.
Riding wasn’t all that hard, after all!
They were going home along the lake. How nice it would have been if Theresa could have seen him right now! Anyway, how nice it would be to do this walk with her again, like in the good old days…
He turned a bit melancholic for a while. He looked out across the wide, sparkling expanse of the lake and felt, for the first time, that he could sense the meaning of a free life. When he got back home, his mate was already there. Obviously he hadn’t followed him all the way. He was sitting on his own horse and waiting. In the midst of his euphoria Tom had forgotten all about him.
“Come on, let’s do another round together!” he said.
Tom agreed enthusiastically.
Tom’s mate went first. Bess willingly followed the other horse. Tom’s mate slowed down, so that Tom could catch up and they could walk side by side. They went through town once again.
Tom and his mate chatted happily. They came past Tom’s parents who were on their way home, but who didn’t seem to recognize the two riders. Old Miller just nodded when Tom’s mate greeted them. When they were out of hearing, Tom and his mate had a good laugh about it. Then they talked more generally about their respective parents, their teacher and the people in town.
And now they were already out of town and passing the board with the town’s name. Tom’s mate made his horse trot lightly. Bess followed the example of the other horse. Tom immediately started losing his balance again. Instinctively he bent forward. “Just lean back!” his mate called to him.
Tom tried to do that, all the while feeling more and more insecure. But really, leaning well back he suddenly felt much better! Instead of just being shaken, his body started moving w ith the horse. The trot accelerated imperceptibly, until they were going quite fast, and Tom was still feeling okay in the saddle!
After a while Tom and his mate turned back. It was dusk, and there was a reddish glow on everything. The way home seemed much longer than the way out. The last bit they even cantered! Tom had to hold on to the saddle, so that he wouldn’t fall off. He felt he was sitting on the boiler of an out-of-control steam-engine!
But after a while he had to admit to himself that cantering was rather more comfortable for the rider than trotting. Of course it was scarier, but he was shaken much less. Shortly before reaching the Millers’ house, Tom’s mate changed over to a walking pace once again. Bess followed the example of the other horse. Tom’s mate threw an apple for Tom to catch.
“A treat for your horse!” he cried out. “See you tomorrow!”, then he rode off. Tom had some difficulty making it clear to Bess that she shouldn’t follow the other horse this time. But finally Bess’ urge to go home proved stronger after all.
Tom rode up to the house. Dad was standing in the doorway with the horse-whip. Tom got off the horse in front of his father, and then he led Bess to the stable, took off the saddle and the reins and brushed her down with big handfuls of straw. He couldn’t resist the temptation of taking a bite of the apple himself. But then he gave it to Bess and wished her a good night.
“Do you have anything to tell me, son?” his father asked as he stepped into the house. “Nothing,” Tom answered with conviction and looked his father straight in the eyes. Dad put away the whip without a word and sat down at the table where mum was serving dinner.
Schooltime was over. Tom could read and write, count and do his sums. Not much else was being taught. Tom had the irksome feeling that he had learned all there was to learn in the first two years and that the rest had just been practicing and practicing without really learning anything new. In spite of this, school had been tiresome and burdensome – after all, boredom is a burden too. Continuously doing the same sums isn’t very fruitful, but it still burdens the brain.
Pain doesn’t always help you grow, even if his mother liked to think that it did. In another place and in another time Tom might have gone to University, and it surely wouldn’t have made him any more tired than his little school in the Wild West did, but it would definitely have been more fruitful.
Anyway, the tiresome school-days were over now – he just wasn’t so much more scholarly or mature than he had been when he had started.
Now Tom had to help his parents work the small farm. The work wasn’t very varied, and it was especially unmotivating for Tom to know that you could only ever earn just enough to get by.
It was inhuman in the sense that humanness precisely consists of doing things that don’t fulfill only basic, immediate needs. Humanness includes science and art, things that may or may not one day prove to have survival-value…
Primitive animals rely on the shuffling of traits and the chance-occurrences of heredity to adapt to new circumstances. More advanced animals have some learning abilities, and the most advanced animals of all have an urge to explore new things, just like that, because you never know what may or may not be useful to you one day…
Like any other highly evolved creature, Tom had an urge to explore, not just the world around him, but also the possibilities of his own body and mind.
The prospect of shearing sheep for the rest of his life made him want to throw up. He tried to tell his mother, but she answered that he was being childish. “At your age one doesn’t think of playing around anymore. At your age one has to work and stand on one’s own feet.”
Tom said: “Then give me money for my work, so that I can stand on my own feet.” Mum threw up her hands in the air: “I don’t have any money! You get to eat, you have a roof above your head. I can’t give you more,” and as an afterthought she added: “and you don’t need more either!”
“I don’t like your cooking. I don’t like to live under your care. If you don’t pay me money, I’ll go and work somewhere else!”
“Then go, you ungrateful son!”
But Tom didn’t go. He wouldn’t really have known how to go about it.
One day dad gave him a little bit of money. “From now on I’ll give you some pocket money every week. Use it wisely and don’t tell your mum about it. She doesn’t want you to have pocket money. She says she can’t allow herself any extras either, and in her eyes it would be unfair that you would have money just for yourself…”
Instead of being pleased by this new complicity with his father, all Tom could feel was his teenager’s anger against his mother: “She doesn’t have any money just for herself, sure enough, but she manages this business how SHE likes, not how I like. She is free in a way I could only be if I had my own money. As long as I don’t have my own money, I am a prisoner of her motherly care!”
Tom wondered why his father was giving him money. He was too young to have any idea of the ambiguous feelings a father may have for his son, so he just made up a completely rational explanation: “My father is dependent on me, because I’m the only one who knows how to handle the horse. He wants to pay me so that he wouldn’t feel in my debt. He wants to degrade me by making me into an employee rather than an equal partner!” Tom didn’t at all feel the inconsistency in his way of thinking – without money he felt trapped in his mother’s care, but with money he felt he was being degraded. How should his parents have behaved?
Tom saved up his money till he had several dollars. Then he went into the Davidsons’ arms-shop.
Old Davidson was surprised when he saw the little Miller-boy step into his shop. Tom didn’t know how to greet him. Davidson returned the silence, but he nevertheless lifted his eyebrows with polite interest. Of course he wasn’t as obliging as he would have been towards one of those dangerous-looking cowboys who sometimes passed through town, but he still felt inclined to be helpful towards little Miller. After all, it would be a triumph for him to sell a weapon from his stock to the well- guarded sunny-boy of those weaponhating, feuding neighbours!
Tom said, rather shyly: “I would like a revolver that isn’t too expensive.” Davidson showed him several models. He started with the heaviest and most expensive one to give Tom a little fright. When Tom tried it out in the backyard, the recoil almost broke his wrist. Who knows where the bullet went. Davidson encouraged him to take another shot. This time the bullet kicked up a load of dirt – Tom had been so scared of the recoil that he had convulsively lowered his hand while pulling the trigger, completely spoiling his aim, of course. Davidson had a good laugh.
Tom felt downhearted. But now Davidson took out the smaller models. Tom eventua lly chose a handy six-shot revolver with a rough-looking but comfortable wooden grip. He bought several boxes of ammunition with it and left the gun-shop feeling rather pleased with himself.
In the afternoon he built himself a target with some boards. In the evening he went off with his target and his gun to practice in a paddock behind the house. His parents were shocked when they heard the shots and then saw their son with a gun. His mother called out to him, but he didn’t hear her, because he had plugged up his ears with wet cotton wool. He sent off one bullet after the other in the general direction of the target, till the drum was empty. Then he reloaded it and emptied it again. He pushed back the hammer with his left hand after each shot. He started paying more attention to where the bullets went.
His mother had always taught him not to point at people, because supposedly that was impolite. With a gun you do point, decidedly, and then you pull the trigger. Tom pointed at the center of the target and fired off the six shots he had in quick succession, his left hand pushing back the hammer after each one. This time Tom had really hit the target. The bullet holes were scattered across it almost in a line. Tom loaded the gun once again. Now he fired the sho ts individually, paying attention to his aim. A cloud of bullet holes started covering the target, but he only paid attention to those that hit the center. Gradually there were so many of them that he needed to patch in up.
Tom practiced till dusk forced him to stop. Then he went home feeling pleased, his hands smelling of gun-powder, the barrel of his gun too hot to touch.
Mum was quite hysterical, but dad didn’t say a word. Tom went to bed feeling confident – as long as only mum got her fits, everything was fine. He knew he could handle her. From now on Tom practiced with his gun for about an hour every evening. He burnt up tons of ammunition and kept needing new boards to fix up his target when it was so full of holes that you couldn’t see which one had been the last one.
But dad was paying. He was secretly proud of the ostentatiously manly new hobby of his son. Mum didn’t know about it. When she asked Tom where the gun came from, he answered he had borrowed it from a friend. She didn’t even stop to wonder where the ammunition came from. Maybe the dear old lady thought that guns work all by themselves.
One fine day as Tom rode to town on Bess to buy something, he came across Jack sitting on Blackie, the big, black stallion. He was happy to see that the mighty stallion wasn’t even all that much bigger than Bess, just broader. The black monster started puffing and stomping when it saw the mare. Jack gave it a quick whip-lash on the shoulder and then on the behind and promptly got carried away at a wild gallop.
Tom saw flashes of sunlight reflecting off an impressive belt buckle. Now he saw that a holster was hanging from the broad belt, and a big, black, long-barreled revolver was sticking in it. Surely this was a revolver of exactly the same kind as the one Tom had first tried out in the gun-shop.
Jealously he thought that he would surely be advanced enough by now to hold such a powerful weapon too. But then he told himself that such a heavy gun wasn’t very well suited to quick drawing and was good for hunting, rather.
In a duel Tom, with his handy little revolver, would win over Jack – but he should have a belt with a holster…
Tom worked hard on the little farm of his parents so that his father would go on giving him pocket money regularly. He didn’t burn up q uite as much ammunition as in the beginning, because he was already a much better shot. He was satisfied when he hit the centre of the target six times in a row, and soon enough he just needed six bullets to do that. He regularly increased the distance bet ween himself and the target, and then it sometimes took him longer (and more bullets) to hit the centre those six times in a row which meant that his practice run of the day was over.
Thanks to his more economical use of ammunition he soon got together eno ugh money to buy himself a holster with an appropriate belt.
Now he could go out with his gun, carrying it in the holster. But he realized that the gun couldn’t really offer him any protection if he couldn’t get it in his hands fast enough. He looked good carrying that revolver in its holster, though – like a real man! The revolver hung at his side like an extension of his body, only waiting to be lifted up to be dangerous. The big, metallic belt-buckle marked the spot from which Tom’s shots would come from. Tom had looked at himself in the big mirror in the shop (he didn’t have such a big mirror at home), and he had liked what he saw. Only now it occurred to him that the image was deceptive…
If Tom carried a weapon, a villain might shoot him just to protect himself. If Tom was unarmed, the villain certainly wouldn’t bother, because Tom would obviously be harmless.
There’s always a temptation to wear badges of authority – not just literal badges - without really being entitled to them, but it can be dangerous. If you’re a kid and behave like one, you won’t have your word to say, but you most likely won’t be shot at either. If you want to be part of adult schemes before being sure that you’re really an adult, you might have to pay a steep price for that.
Once Tom realized that, he didn’t for a second think of dropping his newly- found manliness. Rather, he decided to become as competent as he looked with the new outfit as soon as possible.
So he started practicing drawing the revolver out of its new holster. Every evening he stood in front of his target, tore the revolver out of the holster, fired one shot and put the revolver back. Sometimes he hit the target and was happy. Sometimes he missed it and got annoyed with himself. In any case he felt too slow on the draw, and it was hard to see progress in the daily exercises he did. He didn’t go to bed with the same satisfaction anymore as he used to when he was just concentrating on his aim.
So nowadays he took the tension that he accumulated throughout the day to bed with him in the evening. Earlier he used to be able to get relief of this tension through shooting, and then, after his customary wriggling before sleep he would get rid of it altogether and drift off easily.
But now he was such a good shot that he practically always hit the centre of the target, even at great distance.
Actually he should have been happy with himself. But he wasn’t. He had hoped for something to arise from his good aim, some new form of freedom, perhaps. But all those practice runs had only made him a better shot, nothing else. He was disappointed. Luckily he already had this new hope – he had to learn to draw the gun faster, and then… Then he would surely become free!
As soon as he would see some progress in his practice runs, he would be able to go to bed happily in the evening once again, looking forward to a bright future. But while he was standing still he had ample opportunity to brood over his sad destiny.
Namely that mother and father were keeping him a prisoner.
He didn’t feel much of the presence of his father, actually. Dad hardly ever spoke. When you stood in front of him, you had a feeling of emptiness, of a hole that should have been filled by a human being, but that human being was never really there.
Mum was exactly the opposite – she was really THERE, too much so, making lots of remarks all the time, and when she wasn’t bickering, then she talked in bursts, putting extra emphasis onto every second word or so, as if she was astonished by everything she saw. When Tom dropped something, then she would cry out, so much so that Tom would be more startled by her cry than by what he had dropped. In short – at least every second word uttered by his mother was a word too many, and there was nowhere he could let out his aggravation. To protect himself he developed a kind of depressed lethargy and thus started resembling his silent father.
Always to be subordinated, always having to guess the intentions of a higher authority, ends up causing feelings of hatred. Tom would have liked to free himself of all this. Just to float away weightlessly, leaving behind the feelings of hatred on Earth, that’s what he wanted! To feel just a single, gentle touch all over his body, the touch of a little breeze, that’s what he wanted. No more feet would trample his own feet!
But maybe he would feel kind of lonely up there, floating above the Earth. Maybe he should take someone with him, just one single person.
And because no one else is up there, all his gregarious instincts, his whole sociability, and ultimately his whole love, would all be directed towards that one single person. Stark naked, surrounded by a single, all-encompassing touch, the two of them would form such a strong twosomeness that they would then be able to return to Earth together and give each other so much support that they would never again feel crushed by hatred. But first you needed to be naked, completely naked, then you could feel that allencompassing touch. Completely naked, but not alone, and then everything would be possible!
Tom couldn’t quite explain all this to himself, but his longing and his lust were colossal he felt that something was stirring in him that was much bigger than he was himself… One day Tom saw two young men having a fist-fight in front of the Saloon. Both had laid down their weapons – obviously neither of them was prepared to risk death. Nevertheless it was a hard fight, and it was over only when one of the men lied in the street, unable to get up. Tom suddenly understood that there are important things in life besides being able to handle a revolver.
He decided that very day to do daily push-ups in addition to his shooting exercises that had progressed so little lately.
Tom started working on those push- ups with iron willpower. Twenty in a row, then his arms wouldn’t obey him anymore, so he did those twenty every single day. As the months went by, Tom made great progress. Now he was happy again when he went to bed in the evening. His despair that had made him so restless and had brought about such strange fantasies vanished as progress resumed.
When Tom turned twenty he was able to do more than a hundred push- ups, and he was able to pull his weight up to a tree-branch twenty times in a row. And as if by magic his right arm had learned to tear the revolver out of its holster in no time at all. As his right hand leaped up and forward with the gun, it would slap into the waiting left hand and be held in place for shooting. Tom could fire his six shots in quick succession. Tom practiced by first turning his back to the target. He would count till three, turn around while pulling the gun and fire six bull’s eyes, all in flash.
Tom Miller had become a great gunman! Now, when he went out, he always carried his gun, plainly visible to anyone. It sure wasn’t a fake badge of authority anymore!
One day, as Tom was walking home quietly through town, a former class- mate stopped him.
“You’ve got a beautiful revolver! Can you shoot with it too?”
The boy pointed out an old Whiskey-bottle lying on the street some d istance away. “I bet you twenty dollars you won’t hit that bottle there!”
Tom answered: “I don’t even have that much money.”
The boy said: “If you lose, you give me your horse.”
Tom didn’t answer. The bottle was larger than the centre of his usual target at home. It was impossible that Tom would miss it. And yet… the tiniest deviation of his fingers from their usual position on the gun could mean that he would lose his best friend, Bess. On the other hand there were the twenty dollars. That was a lot of money that he could get in one blow.
His hand itched with wanting to shoot. Without saying whether he agreed to the bet, he pulled the gun and shot the bottle in two.
“Amazing!” said the boy. “Can you do that again any time?”
Tom wanted to shoot up the broken halves of the bottle, but the boy held him back. “Wait.”
Tom slipped his gun back into its holster.
The boy picked up a middle-sized shingle, said “This stone” and threw it up into the air. Tom’s gun jumped out of its holster and fired five times. The boy saw how the shingle was hurled back up into the air on its way down and finally fell down in two pieces. “Unbelievable!” he said in wonder.
Tom was pleased with himself too – at least one of his five bullets had hit the stone in the air!
“I’ll go and get the twenty dollars!” said the boy, helpful like a toady, and ran away. He really came back a moment later with a bundle of banknotes, exactly twenty dollars, true to his word.
“What will you do with the money?” he asked.
Tom thought of his dreams of naked flesh exposed to the wind…
The adult thing that adults do when nobody is watching - it has to be that. Tom had to do it too, see what it’s like.
He swallowed even though there was nothing to swallow, then he said: “I’d like to sleep with a girl.”
The boy looked at Tom quizzically. He obviously knew about these things. “Above the saloon there’s a girl who does these things for money.” He paused. “For a small fee, I can get you an appointment, then all you need to do is knock on her door, and she’ll let you in.”
So the boy got back some of his twenty dollars, and one fine Saturday afternoon Tom went off to the Saloon.
“Today you’ll do it!” he told himself, and he felt himself getting weak in the knees. Then he felt somewhat ridiculous as well. After all he wasn’t going to do anything heroic, just try out his manliness. Every young man has to do that at some point. Nobody ever dies from it. By and by Tom started looking at the whole thing as a kind of necessary chore rather than an adventure. He walked down the street like a child on his first school-day – a bit scared, a bit excited, but unfortunately not really excited in an erotic way… After all, this path he was treading had already been trodden many times before, by every single boy turning into a man. There was nothing special or great about it. Tom came to the Saloon, pushed his way through the swinging doors, looked around in the room in a rather lost and undecided way, but then, luckily, he saw the staircase leading up to the rooms above, and he walked there purposefully like a businessman. He walked up the creaking stairs and, when he reached the landing, he stood there a moment. A strange moment. A moment can always be prolonged by another moment, and yet another, because a moment is just a moment, so yo u can always add another one to it. You have all the time in the world, you take in every detail of your surroundings, every crack in the wall, the dark wood under your feet, above your head…
But whatever you do, the moment is still just a moment, and it’s over before you had a chance to really take it in. His heart was beating fast and hard. He saw the door number 4 and knocked.
Another one of these moments that are endless and yet never seem to last long enough, and the door opened a crack. A big round face with dark eyes and fat lips, grinning broadly, appeared in the crack.
“Ah, it’s you! Come in! Come in!“
From the first moment he heard it, Tom hated that voice. It was a friendly voice, of course, much too friendly actually, but without real warmth. And in spite of this lack of warmth there was a soft undertone, kind of a confidential undertone, as if there were no barriers between them. There wasn’t the slightest trace of reserved politeness that would have befitted two people who don’t know anything about each other yet. And in spite of this total lack of reserved caution, there was no warmth in it. That’s what put off Tom.
The door opened wide and Tom stepped in. As soon as he was inside, the girl closed the door. Her hand got between his legs as if by chance and gave his genitals a little squeeze. The soft undertone in her voice was quite tendent ious by now.
“Put yourself at ease.”
Tom looked around in the room. It was dark, stuffy and small. Dirty curtains shut out the light. Apart from a little wooden stool, a wardrobe that seemed to lean dangerously forward and a big bed that covered most of the floor-space there was no other furniture. The girl was in underwear and already busily taking it off. Her breasts turned loose and floated freely through the space in front of Tom’s nose.
Tom didn’t feel well. A feeling of claustrophobia started closing in on him. But he was brave, so he started taking off his clothes too and laying them down on the stool in an orderly pile. He bared his chest and the sight of his own muscular body calmed him down somewhat – he was a strong man, and he was the one who paid here. What could he possibly be afraid of?
The girl was already quite naked, but somehow she didn’t look very appetizing. Just lots of bare flesh, like a chicken that has lost all its feathers.
As Tom let his pants slip down along his thighs, he felt his penis stretch out. For the moment he was alone with his thoughts, thoughts of bygone times, of walks along the lake. As he straightened up and put down his last piece of clothing, his penis had become limp again – he was back in the small unpleasant room.
“What about my little present?”
The girl’s voice lost its soft undertone for a split second: “The ten dollars!” she said coarsely.
“Ah, yes…” said Tom and bent down over his pile of clothes to look through his pockets. He pulled out the ten dollars and gave them to the girl. The girl put away the money and tumbled onto the bed.
“Come, come…” she said.
Tom couldn’t have stood around naked much longer – he felt he was getting weak. He joined the girl on the bed, and she immediately had her warm hands all over him. Tom relaxed, and his genitals became as soft as butter. The touch of her hands was so warm that Tom stopped feeling it. His genitals might as well have been safely tucked up inside his clothes once again. Tom forgot all about being naked.
“It isn’t getting stiff“ observed the girl after kneading his balls for a while. “You have to come closer to me” said Tom without real conviction. He hadn’t imagined it would be like this. Precisely, when he imagined things, his penis would stretch uncontrollably and let go its juice in no time at all! Well, he was glad this hadn’t happened here, before he even had time to do anything.
But actually, to be honest, he really didn’t feel like doing anything at all right now – not with this woman! And yet he knew that he should, because that’s what becoming a man is all about. Except that his penis had shriveled up to nothing in her much too warm hands. These hands excited him about as much as the hands of a dentist in his mouth! The girl pressed herself against him. Her body was as warm as her hands and smelled strongly of some cheap perfume. The girl lied down on top of him and moved back and forth. Her bad breath blew into his face, and he could also smell his own acid sweat when he lifted his arms. His muscular chest became ice-cold. Sweat-drops fell from his arm-pits, but his genitals didn’t react.
The girl whispered in his left ear: “You’re my dream-man… Come, come into me!” She spoke softly, then harshly, but it was to no avail.
She stood up, got her own underwear and pulled it over Tom’s legs, over his genitals, but this perverse little gesture didn’t change anything either. Tom had reached a point where nothing in the world could have excited him anymore.
The girl got up once again and said: “You are thirsty.”
She got him a glass of whiskey mixed with some fruit-juice, a glass that had probably never been washed, and she drank a mouthful before handing it over to Tom. This wasn’t a time to be prudish, so Tom took the glass and drank all the mixture in big gulps till the glass was empty.
As he gave it back, he scrutinized the tummy of the girl, as she was bent over him. In this position it was rather egg-shaped, and he could see the pores in the skin like thousands of little craters. The big, deep belly-button was right in front of his nose, like a dark cave in which you could get lost.
When the girl wanted to start working on him again, he pushed her back, stood up, dressed up quickly and left the small, stuffy room without another word. Back down in the saloon he felt like running off. He didn’t. He walked to the exit gravely and solemnly, pushed his way through the double-doors and was back outside in the sunshine. He felt immeasurably relieved. He walked to the middle of the street and just stood there a moment, glad to feel his body held up by his own two legs.
So, what had all this been about, then?
An inner voice was telling him that he was a bloody idiot. Maybe it was the same inner voice that had once told him to go into the stable with Bess, long before he had managed to tame her. Now that he thought about it, he vaguely seemed to remember being influenced by this same inner voice when he had asked his former class- mate about sleeping with a girl…
Maybe he shouldn’t listen to this inner voice so much?
Now the inner voice was groaning! Maybe it would leave him now, give up on him… “No, no,” it said, and now Tom could hear it literally as though someone was speaking inside his skull: “I’m not giving up on you just yet.”
Tom couldn’t tell whether he was relieved or scared. This inner voice was obviously just part of himself. Or was it? It said such strange things sometimes, such alien things! Tom wondered whether he was really a bloody idiot or not. Of course he knew that he had been supposed to go in there to that woman with an enormous erection and to explode inside her in a glorious climax!
But why would that have been so great if everybody ended up doing it at some point in their life anyway?
Bloody fool, said the voice, everybody gets born too, at some crucial point in their life, but that doesn’t make it any less glorious or miraculous!
Tom still couldn’t imagine that what he had missed out on right now would really have been so glorious. So he should have gone in there, loaded with energy bursting at the tip of his dick, and then come out pleasantly drunk with post-orgasmic drowsiness? In the meantime the girl, not being involved emotionally, would have lost nothing of her strength. A professional whore makes even the stiffest dick soft again. It’s a special power over men that she has. In the end she’s the one who wins over her clients and not the other way around.
Well, it hadn’t worked with Tom. His dick hadn’t even become stiff to start with. Whatever potency was hidden in him, she hadn’t been able to take it from him, because it hadn’t expressed itself in the first place.
“Yeah, yeah,” said the inner voice with obvious resignation, “you can lo ok at it like that as well…”
Tom realized, and perhaps his inner voice realized it together with him, that it isn’t always enough to get in touch with the body of just any girl in order to be rid of the tremendous inner tension. Sex is a means of escape from everyday life. But the sweetness of such an escape lies in the hope that it will lead into a new life, a new world. If it leads back into the old one, then it was useless.
What Tom expected from sex, deep down, was the promise of love. Without this promise it was an escape into emptiness, perhaps ultimately even death…
“Sure, sure,” said the inner voice, exasperated.
When winter came, things went badly for the Millers. An illness broke out among the sheep that seemed to take epidemic proportions. It was like a wild fire – each sheep in turn blazed up and died…
Old Miller had called on the doctor as soon as the first sheep got ill, but all the doctor did was to declare the meat unfit to eat. He couldn’t tell whether the illness was infectious or not. In spite of this old Miller took all the precautions he could think of. He swept and brushed the stable of the sheep like never before, changed all the straw and burned the old straw. Nevertheless every single one of his sheep got ill and died. He had to burn the body of a sheep almost daily. When the last sheep had died, he got ill himself. The doctor had to come again. He looked at poor Miller for a few minutes, gave him a powder to mix in water and swallow daily (that he had to pay straight away). He said: “It’s just a bit of fever.”
But as he left he mumbled: “Looks like he caught the illness of his sheep himself…!” The Millers had no money and no income anymore. Mother would have liked to talk about it with Father, but all he said was: “Leave me alone!”
He slept the whole day and didn’t want to eat or talk. He just wanted to drink water. That’s all he ever wanted, and about every three hours he had to be helped to the latrines. Whichever of these two things he wanted, he would call Mother impatiently, till she hurried to his bed. Later he started vomiting as well, and even though there was little more than water in his stomach, Mother had to work hard to keep his bed clean. She didn’t think of mealtimes anymore, and Tom often felt hungry. He strolled through town looking for any kind of work just to earn a few dollars. Apart from occasional little jobs that he was given more out of pity than need he couldn’t find anything to do. Nobody had much use for him. In the evening he went home and gave these measly ear nings to his mother. Each time she looked at him with deep gratitude, and he saw that the furrows in her round face, that he knew so well, had grown deeper.
Then one evening, as Mother and Tom stood around Father’s bed, Father said: “I feel better. I think I may be healing. Surely tomorrow I can get up again.”
Tom felt tears coming to his eyes, which took him by surprise.
Mother smiled a little, for the first time in many days.
Father looked up at them. The wild anger had disappeared from his eyes. His voice was little more than a sigh. The times of hoarse shouting were over.
That night he didn’t wake up his family. In the morning they found him dead in his bed. He lied there, peacefully embedded in his blankets, his hands on his chest and his eyes shut, ready for the coffin. The doctor was called to ascertain what was certain anyway. Then came the undertaker. He looked at the body and called out delightedly: “How peacefully he’s lying there!”
Then he commented: “We don’t need to change him. He can be buried in his night-shirt.” Tom had to help the undertaker to lift Father into the coffin. The undertaker held him under the arms, and Tom couldn’t do anything but grab the legs of his dead father. Then he had to help to carry the open coffin out of the house. Father crossed the threshold of his humble little house for the last time. Then the coffin was shoved into the hearse. Now the way through town to the cemetery began. Tom was in a kind of dream-state from which he only awoke when the coffin, from which his father would never come out again, was nailed shut.
The coffin hit the bottom of the grave, which wasn’t even all that deep, with a dull thud, the priest was there to say a few empty words, and then soil was shoveled on top of it. Finally a wooden cross was hammered into the earth, and with that it was all over. The hearse drove away empty, and Tom walked home with his mother. They didn’t talk. The whole evening they sat in front of the fire in silence. But when Tom went to bed, Mother came into his room for a moment, said “Good night” and gave him a kiss on the brow. Then she left his room and went to bed herself. After all she was still his mother. The next morning Tom left the house early. He really had to find work now, else he didn’t know what would happen to him and his mother. Nobody had anything for him to do today either, but people were strangely quiet towards him as well, almost as if they felt ashamed. Nobody had been at the funeral. The Millers weren’t especially popular in town.
Tom went home in the early afternoon. His mother was sitting at the dining table. Tom could tell that she had been crying. In her hand she held a short letter. The grey envelope lay open on the table – it wasn’t a letter of condolence from the looks of it… “Just what we needed…” she said bitterly.
“What’s the matter, Mother?” asked Tom.
“We’ve been evicted.”
“Evicted from what? I don’t understand.”
Mother looked up at Tom. “This land on which we live doesn’t belong to us. We’ve only been renting it. A few days ago the rent was due, and we didn’t pay.”
“But we couldn’t pay!”
“Who owns the land?”
Mother hesitated. Finally she said very softly: “The Davidsons.”
“The Davidsons!” Tom called out and overturned his chair as he jumped up. “I’ll make them pay for this!”
He left the house and ran to the stable. He saddled Bess. Mother rushed after him. “What are you going to do, Tom? Please don’t do it, please!”
“I must!” said Tom resolutely.
“Stay here, Tom, I beg you! Please stay here!”
“Tom, stay here! Come back!“
But Tom was galloping down the street to the town. Bess was wearing her saddle and he was wearing his holster with the gun.
Old mother Miller saw him disappearing in a cloud of dust and knew that she might never see her son again.
Tom rode to the saloon. He knew that he would meet old Davidson there. At this time of the day he was always sitting there with a game of cards. Tom wanted to challenge and shoot him.
On the way he got more and more convinced that Davidson was a dirty son of a bitch. It was his fault that Tom’s father had died. Father had died out of despair, it was quite clear – when his last sheep had died, he knew that he couldn’t pay Davidson anymore and that Davidson would never give him a chance.
Tom also remembered the conversatio ns about the conflicts between North and South. The town hadn’t been directly implicated. The Davidsons sympathized with the North, and the Millers (how could it be otherwise in this case?) with the South. In secret Tom had felt more attracted to the North. The northerners were more modern somehow. They were the harbingers of a new industrial world and they wanted to end slavery. But right now Tom thought bitterly that it had finally become clear what the northerners really wanted – they only thought about money, they didn’t care about poor people like the Millers who were just an obstacle in the path of progress when they couldn’t pay up anymore.
Soon Tom saw a confrontation between two worlds, between humaneness and the cold power of industry, in his upcoming fight with old Davidson.
Tom rode up to the saloon. He dismounted and stroked Bess between the ears, where she liked it. He tied her to a post and walked into the saloon, head held high. He had a momentary thought for the whore up in room number four, undoubtedly waiting for her next customer, and shuddered, but today he hadn’t come for her. He walked straight to the table where the poker game was taking place. The sheriff, old Davidson and two other men Tom didn’t know were sitting there.
“Get up, Davidson!” said Tom.
Old Davidson looked up in surprise. He was going to laugh, but he saw the dangerous sparkle in Tom’s eyes and held it back.
“Up I said!” Tom tried to hook Davidsons chair with his foot to pull it away from under him.
Slowly the sheriff got up. “Listen, little one…”
Tom’s eyes were on Davidson, but he saw the sheriff too, in the periphery of his field of vision.
He spoke to the sheriff: “Don’t move! Sit back down!”
But the sheriff slowly moved in front of Davidson, till he practically covered him. Davidson discreetly set out to disappear through the back door.
Tom noticed this and got blindingly mad.
His right hand was resting right next to the grip of his revolver. The palm of his hand was already in the shape of the grip. Each finger had taken up its appointed position, ready to wrap itself around the grip with the index curling itself round the trigger. Just a tiny movement more, and it would all be done.
Tom’s inner voice was talking again. Did other people have such inner voices too? No, it wasn’t just talking, it was SCREAMING at him! But somehow Tom couldn’t tell what it was saying. Was it urging him on or telling him to leave it? Who knows? Tom wasn’t really in the right state of mind to pay attention to it.
In any case he wasn’t a scared little boy anymore. His left hand grabbed the sheriff by the collar to push him aside.
The sheriff snarled: “That’s enough!..” He reached for his revolver.
He shouldn’t have done that, though. Tom’s right hand - that had been resting by his hip so casually - suddenly leaped up, clasping the gun, and fired. Tom’s other hand swiftly came on top of the gun and pushed back the hammer, all in one flow of a motion, readying the gun for the next shot.
The sheriff’s eyes turned up in their sockets till only the whites were visible, and Tom was so close that he could see the meandering pathways of the tiny veins within the white surfaces as the man collapsed like a heavy bag of potatoes, crashing onto Davidson’s empty chair which was right behind him. Davidson, who had been sitting there a moment before, had vanished.
Tom’s revolver was pointing at one of the other men in the room. The gun was cocked – at the slightest twitch of his trigger finger, the gun would go off. Tom walked backwards slowly. His gun never stopped aiming at that one man. The bullet was waiting in front of the hammer. Whoever moved, for whatever reason, that one man in front of Tom’s gun would die…
Tom was approaching the swinging doors backwards. Now he felt them behind himself. One last look at the people in the saloon – nobody was moving. Tom leaped backwards and was outside!
Keeping an eye on the entrance of the saloon, he went over to Bess. He tied her loose and wanted to mount when it occurred to him that everybody would come charging out of the saloon as soon as they heard a horse galloping off. They would all aim at Tom’s back and shoot him off the horse.
Tom led Bess to the middle of the street, stroking her soft muzzle, then he stood behind her and gave her a little clap on the behind.
“Go!” he told her.
She trotted off. Indeed, one of the men in the saloon had obviously been waiting for exactly that sound, because he appeared in the entrance of the saloon with a gun in his hand. He had no time to regret it, because Tom put a bullet between his eyes. Bess just went on trotting. Gun shots didn’t startle her – she was used to them. She went on in the direction of the cemetery. At the end of the row of houses she would turn and take the path homewards along the lake, because that was the usual walk she did with Tom.
Tom’s idea was to go through the row of houses and to wait for her on the other side. For this he chose the house of the sheriff which stood right across the street from the saloon. He knew that nobody was in the sheriff’s office, because the sheriff was lying dead in the saloon. He also knew that there was a back door.
Tom walked backwards to the sheriff’s house, opened the door behind himself and entered the office. Then he silently closed the door.
Only now he dared to turn around. His heart was beating so hard he could hear it! He was feeling his way through the dusky half-dark when he heard a voice from the jail: “Who are you?”
“I just shot the sheriff” answered Tom. That seemed like the only sensible answer he could give. He wasn’t sure that he was still Tom Miller, and besides, his life would be shaped by this deed from now on – from now on he was the man who had shot the sheriff. Perhaps this man had grown out of Tom Miller somehow, but it definitely wasn’t Tom Miller anymore.
The man in the jail said: “Won’t you let me out? The key’s on the sheriff’s desk.” Tom hesitated for just a moment – maybe the prisoner wanted to redeem himself by being the one to catch the dangerous outlaw Tom Miller!
But Tom wanted to keep out of further trouble, so he left the prisoner where he was. He left the office of the sheriff through the back door.
And there was Bess coming towards him. He stroked her nose and mounted. He gently but decidedly steered her around, back in the direction where she had just come from. “Today we don’t go home” he told her, “today we go far, far away. Canter, Bess, canter!” Bess was a bit reluctant, since this was so unusual, but Tom was very decided, so she gave in and cantered off in the direction she had come from, past the school and the cemetery, on and on, out of town and far, far away.
His horse Bess, the clothes he was wearing, five dollars he had on him and the gun with four more bullets, that was all Tom was taking with him. He had to flee and start a new life elsewhere. He had murdered the sheriff. Why oh why hadn’t he just knocked him down instead of shooting him? The sheriff was an honest, elderly man, and all he had wanted to do was probably to lock Tom up for the night. He hadn’t meant any harm. Of course he couldn’t have known what had happened between Tom and Davidson… Tom’s anger came straight back – the sheriff had no right to interfere like that! Tom had only been seeking justice!
The sheriff had tried to pull a gun.
That had been his big mistake. It had set in motion a series of well-practiced reflexes within Tom, and that’s what had killed him. Tom had had no intention of killing the sheriff, but once his reflexes had been set in motion, it was too late! The sheriff had only himself to blame!
With these thoughts in his mind, Tom raced along the dusty road and was unable to make any kinds of plans for his future.
What was to become of him? He was an outlaw now, bound to be hunted down! Anyone was surely allowed to kill him!
Throughout the night Tom rode west, trotting a good part of the way. A light trot that Bess could maintain for a long time.
Towards morning, when he could barely keep his eyes open, he gave up trotting. In the milky light of dawn he could see that they were still on the road, even though they could easily have lost it in the prairie at night.
Tom didn’t remember how he had managed to keep to the road. He didn’t remember how long he had been sitting on Bess either, or how long he had walked next to her in the dead of the night. Bess set down one hoof in front of the other like a sleep-walker and followed the sparse hints of the edge of the road of her own accord. Tom passively let himself be shaken from side to side on her back.
In his thoughts, or perhaps it was more of a dream than a thought, he saw the funeral procession once again, the open coffin in which his father was lying comfortably embedded, too dead to notice what was going to be done to him.
Tom had a sudden intuition of deep wisdom: your own funeral is the last one you have to attend!
Tom saw how the lid of the coffin was closed on him. It was Tom himself lying in the coffin now. The world became dark, he didn’t see anything. Above himself he felt the lid of the coffin. He scratched at it. Dirt got under his fingernails. Under the dirt there was soft, yielding fur. Tom cuddled up to the fur and his mouth searched for the nipple. Now he felt himself sliding away. The fur was escaping from him.
He grabbed the mane of his horse and awoke. He was practically hanging from Bess’ neck and had almost fallen off!
He was wide-awake now – the sleepiness was shaken off.
Behind him the sun was rising. In front of him, in the pink morning light, a small town was awaiting him, a little nest in the endless prairie. Little wisps of mist were rising up from the ground, as if the earth itself were cooking coffee. With the thought of coffee Tom’s spirits rose. He spurred Bess on a bit. Bess’ spirits seemed to rise too – she started trotting eagerly towards the new town.
The sun was already standing higher when Tom and Bess got onto the main street of the small town. The first impression of the town, which had been so friendly a moment ago, was gone. The walls of the houses didn’t glow in delicate pink hues anymore – from up close and in harsher light they looked grey and run-down.
The streets were still empty.
Tom rode towards the centre of the town, hoping to find the saloon and a guest-room where he could rest. The faces of the houses were still quite cheerful, if you didn’t look from too close (the façades were imposing here too, and just like everywhere else the actual buildings behind those splendid façades were little more than sheds), and as he was riding past he saw a curtain move behind a window here and there.
Behind those windows there were people, the inhabitants of this town. Tom reasoned that there was surely a very rich and a very poor family in this town too. Surely the rich man was a cheerful fat guy whom everybody greeted while the poor one had to be an embittered, self-righteous ma n whom nobody liked, just like Tom’s father had been. Surely there was an old sheriff here too who spent his days playing cards in the saloon. Tom wondered what the townsfolk at home were saying about old Miller and his son Tom. Did they have a bad conscie nce for not having helped the Millers and thus having forced their son to become a murderer? But how could you possibly have helped the Millers? They were self-righteous and couldn’t accept anything from other people, least of all help. Did the townsfolk back home talk about the Millers with hatred, because their son had shot two men? What were they going to do with Tom’s mother who was a lonely widow now? What did Tom’s mother herself think of Tom? She would surely become the bitter old widow of the town and not tell anybody what she thought, pretending not to hear what was being whispered behind her back.
Tom got in a gloomy mood, but luckily he was torn out of his fruitless thoughts. A man standing at the corner of a house hailed him: “What are you doing up and about this early? Who are you?”
Tom answered: „My name is Tom Miller and I’m going west to find work.“ There wasn’t much point in giving a false name, Tom thought. When the news got here that an outlaw named Miller was wanted, he would be suspected anyway. The man took a closer look at Tom and obviously decided he didn’t look dangerous. He said: “Sorry that I’m a bit suspicious. Yesterday a group of men came to town. They live in the hotel over there. Later a mail carrier brought this placard to the sheriff…” The man unrolled a piece of paper. It was a drawing of a broadly grinning face. The caption said: “Wanted (dead or alive)”. Underneath it said: “1’000 $”.
“This man is the leader of the group that rode to town yesterday. I’m sure you understand that I get a panicky feeling about having to nail this placard to the wall.” Tom looked at the face on the drawing, making an effort to memorize the rough, square features, and then he looked at the man who was holding up the drawing. He was young, chewing on a stalk of grass and wearing a small metallic star on his shirt. He was undoubtedly an assistant to the sheriff. He looked friendly.
Tom felt he ought to comment on the outlaw on the picture. But he didn’t know what to say. The number under the picture, the one with its three zeroes, fascinated him a lot more than the picture itself.
An unpleasant thought came to him, namely that there might very soon be some money on his head too, but probably not this much.
“A thousand dollars!” he said dreamily.
The sheriff’s deputy said: “They’re yours if you shoot this man! But don’t forget he’s not alone!”
Tom answered: „Well, he’s probably still sleeping... I’d like to take a nap too, before the day begins. But first I need to rub down my mare and give her some grain. But I don’t have much money with me.”
“Come with me to the sheriff. There you can sleep in a prison cell for free. I’ll feed your horse. You can pay when you’ve earned some money.”
“I’d be grateful“ said Tom and got off his horse.
He helped the young man nail the placard to the saloon-wall, holding it up while he used the grip of his gun as a hammer. When it was done, they went to the house of the sheriff together.
The sheriff was sitting at his table, sipping coffee. He was haggard and his eyes looked extinct. It was obvious that he had barely slept all night. Tom greeted him politely. The sheriff didn’t stand up. He scrutinized Tom suspiciously. He looked just like any middleaged man who had spent half his life occupying a responsible position, but without ever really getting into his own because nothing interesting had ever happened. A true peacetime soldier! He had got used to this quiet life and didn’t want it to be any different anymore. His days of aspiring to glory were long over. The arrival of a group of outlaws in his town hadn’t done his disposition any good.
“This young man just arrived. He’s looking for work” said the sheriff’s deputy. “What’s your name?” asked the sheriff.
“Tom Miller” said Tom. “I’d like to give my horse a rub-down, some grain, and then rest a bit. Your deputy offered…”
“No problem with me” mumbled the sheriff. “But leave your gun with me.” “Eh, my gun?” To Tom this sounded as if he had been asked to undress naked. “Come on! Leave him his gun” said the deputy to his boss.
The sheriff ignored him. He asked Tom: “Why are you riding at night?” Tom answered straight out without a wink: “Because it’s cooler at night.” The sheriff seemed to accept this. “You can keep your gun” he said and turned back to his mug of coffee.
The deputy helped Tom brush and feed Bess. Tom whispered some niceties into Bess’ ear, then he left her and went back into the house where he got a mug of steaming tea. Then he went to lie down on the board in the prison cell. He couldn’t really sleep, but time still somehow went by. In the early afternoon he got up and felt hungry. He strolled over to the saloon. In front of the saloon he paused, because he saw that four unshaved, rough- looking men were coming out of the hotel. He took out a cigarette and started lighting it fastidiously. He was wondering how to kill them. Should he talk to them first and let them pull their guns? The sun was in his back and would perhaps blind them a bit. He had a chance to shoot them all down before they could even aim at him. But the men weren’t coming any closer to Tom.
They were going to the saloon. Their leader, the one with the square head, saw his face on the placard that Tom and the sheriff’s deputy had nailed to the wall there, and he laughed so exaggeratedly that his head almost got split in two. The laughing sounded like the barking of a large, angry dog, deep and mean. The three others laughed too, thin, cowardly and cruel little laughs.
The leader suddenly stopped laughing and signaled to his companions to go away. Obviously he had an errand for them. He himself stepped into the saloon. The three accomplices walked past Tom without paying attention to him. He let them by without undertaking anything.
For Tom this was another of these moments that you can always prolong by another moment, but which still never becomes longer than a moment.
An angel flew by, or who knows what exactly happened. Tom’s feet started to move. He walked over to the saloon, tore the placard from the wall, rolled it up, and then he just pushed his body through the swing-doors with the placard still in his hand. The man with the square face was standing at the bar, a glass of whisky in front of him. Not so many people were at the bar yet, but there were enough to make it seem natural when Tom put himself quite close to the outlaw. He started fussing with his cigarette again.
He put down the paper roll in front of the outlaw who slowly looked up, mildly surprised. “Have a light?” Tom asked.
The square face looked slightly puzzled. Who was this careless youth who just addressed him like this? Didn’t he know whom he was dealing with?
Tom’s look was vacant, somehow. His mouth slowly twisted into a kind of grin. But his look stayed vacant.
That youth didn’t just behave insanely – he looked it too!
Tom’s look was vacant all right, but he was aware of the other man’s hands. He wasn’t looking at them directly, but he was aware of them. He was paying attention to his entire visual field.
Interestingly he didn’t feel bashful or scared in front of the big man with the square face. He knew he was in mortal danger, but that also somehow made him feel wonderfully detached of the whole thing. There was no need to confer or negotiate with this man. He wasn’t even a man at all. He was just a mortal danger. A poisonous snake or something. There’s a technique to kill it. If you master that technique, then you just do it. You kill the snake. That’s all. No need to think. No need to feel bashful.
Tom’s hand reached out to the face of the man. Without altering his vacant gaze, Tom carefully pulled the man’s cigarette out of his mouth. It came with a small “Plop!”, as though you were pulling the cork of a bottle. In the perfect silence between the two men you could hear it clearly.
He pushed the glowing tip of the man’s cigarette against his own. He pulled hard on his cigarette, drawing the fire into it, then gently let out the smoke so that it enveloped the face of his adversary, which by now was so close that it seemed huge, filling the whole world.
It was one of these timeless moments again. Then Tom saw how the pupils in the eyes of his adversary suddenly contracted. He also registered movement at the bottom of his visual field. His opponent was obviously grabbing his revolver.
Tom lifted his leg and felt his knee make contact with the soft genitals of the man. The outlaw’s gun fell to the wooden floor with a thud. The square face strained itself with the effort of a yell that just wouldn’t come out.
At last a sound found its way out of the wind -pipe – loud and shrill, like the shriek of a wounded rabbit. It was a short scream, because the man had to catch his breath. His whole body collapsed and fell to the ground. He writhed and twisted himself there, uttering short shrieks. Tom kicked away the revolver that was lying on the ground. He inhaled the smoke from his cigarette deeply and slowly let it out again.
“Dead or alive?” he asked generously. “You choose!”
„Alive, you fool!“ said a voice behind him.
Behind the bar there was a long mirror. Tom saw in it that three menwere standing at the entrance. The three companions of the great outlaw who was at this very moment writhing on the floor. Three men and Tom still had four bullets in his gun. One to spare. Should be okay.
Tom took note of the casual posture of the three men. They weren’t afraid. Fine – they wouldn’t be prepared. One of them hadn’t buttoned up his shirt, and his chest and tummy looked all knotty and hairy. The men didn’t credit Tom with the slightest chance. Their arms hung loosely at their sides.
Tom conc entrated. The muscles in his right arm tautened imperceptibly. His fingers put themselves in position. A moment went by.
A twitch of Tom’s arm, and his gun was in his hand while his body twirled on the heels of his boots. His gun hand slapped into the palm of his left hand where it was held fast and fired three times.
Tom lived through the next few tenths of seconds in slow motion.
The first man was hit without expecting it. The bullet went right into his bare chest. The second man already seemed to have wild eyes, and his gun hand was in the vicinity of the grip of his revolver. Tom’s bullet shattered the lower jaw of his half-open mouth with a little shower of drool. The third man was already pulling his gun out of its holster when Tom’s bullet opene d a little key-hole in his brow, right at the bridge of his nose. The third man’s gun fired harmlessly into the ground, then all three of them toppled over each other and through the swinging doors where they cluttered up the entrance to the saloon.
The swinging doors opened and closed, squeaking plaintively…
Tom heard the great outlaw crawling on the floor behind him. He was probably looking for his gun that was still lying nearby somewhere.
He must have found it, because the noise stopped. Tom turned halfway round and shot him. Right into the eye. Some kind of bloody jelly spilled out.
Tom found his holster with the tip of his gun. He dropped the gun into it. There was silence. Then the barman said:
All the other people in the saloon seemed to wake up from their spell, and they started agreeing loudly: “Bravo! Bravo!”
Tom ordered a whisky and poured it down his throat.
He was happy – at last he had found a way of life. He wasn’t mummy’s sunny-boy anymore. He had just become notorious Old Tom, hadn’t he?
His cigarette was still in his mouth, but it had gone out. Tom took a match, rubbed it against the bar and took pleasure in the flame that immediately flared up. He brought the flame to the tip of his cigarette and drew it in. The tip of the cigarette began to glow. Such an ambiguous thing, this little glow. If you don’t attend to it with loving care, it just goes out. On the other hand, all it needs is to find enough inflammable objects, and it can turn into a roaring fire.
Tom nursed and cherished the little light, exhaling big clouds of smoke. All this smoke was good to see. It wrapped the world into a gentle haze and calmed his nerves. He sipped from his second whisky that the barman had thoughtfully poured him. The roll of paper was still lying on the bar. It was the placard that Tom had torn from the wall and on which he had seen the square face for the first time. At that time the man had still been alive, and Tom had torn off the placard as a sign that he was taking charge of this case. Tom unro lled the piece of paper to check how much he had earned today. A thousand dollars. Surely there would be a tip for the three others as well. Tom compared the head on the placard with the head of the corpse. The square features of the face were so characteristic that the similarity was striking.
Tom would keep this placard, as a souvenir. It definitely belonged to him now. If he ever got to own a house, he would hang it up above the mantle-piece.
Tom was on his way again. On his way into the West. Yesterday at around the same time he had set out from home with his horse and his loaded gun. Six bullets had been in the revolver. He had fired each one of them, and each one of them had been deadly. In the old days Tom had earned his ammunition by working on the little farm of his parents. The money had paid for the ammunition. Today it was the other way around: the bullets had earned him money, amazingly much money.
Now Tom was hundreds of miles from his home-town that he had never left before. His pockets were filled with money, his belt was full of revolver bullets, and his dear horse was carrying a new saddle smelling of fresh, new leather. The saddle had many side-bags filled with food and yet more ammunition.
A long gun was hanging sideways from the saddle. So – Tom was armed, and so was Bess! Tom was also wearing new boots that had cost him several hundred dollars all by themselves.
A rich rancher had got them made, but then he got killed and left nothing but debts. His property had been auctioned, but nobod y had bought the boots which were set with real diamonds. The shoemaker had to take them back.
When Tom came by in a generous mood, the shoemaker had tried to sell him those boots, and he had managed. Tom happily gave up his old shoes, that he had inherited from his father, in exchange for those good boots which, as it turned out, fit him perfectly. They were ordinary cowboy-boots with high heels that would get stuck in the ground like hooks when it came to holding back a wild bull by the lasso. But they were made of the finest leather and richly decorated with real diamonds. They were a rich man’s accessories. No harm in having some of those, thought Tom, now that he could afford them.
Tom had pushed his trouser-legs into the boots, so that the diamonds glittered in the sunlight. He looked like a circus-artist. But unlike a circus artist, the glitter of his boots made an expensive and classy impression, the kind only true diamonds can make. Tom and Bess were leading a pack-horse on a long string. The pack-horse was carrying bulky bags with several days worth of grain, hay and water. Tom’s intention was to travel the several hundreds of miles till the next village. An outlaw worth quite a bit of money had been seen there last, and Tom wanted to go and get him.
The outlaw wasn’t the only reason that Tom was on his way again. He was fleeing. He imagined that his home-town was sending out a message to the world that he was a murderer. He had murdered the sheriff! Tom wanted to travel faster than this message, be ahead of it.
Tom was also fleeing from himself. Staying on the move was a way not to get caught up by his own thoughts. He couldn’t quite get over it that he had killed the sheriff. Tom had never had a tremendously high opinion of that sheriff, so it wasn’t even really bad conscience that was plaguing him now. Rather, he felt it was an absurd murder, and he was ashamed of it. Killing the sheriff didn’t fit into the image he was trying to build up of himself.
Tom wanted to be a quiet kind of guy. The kind who only gets active when he needs to. He didn’t want to be a boasting kind of guy, the kind who actively looks for trouble. He had always hated that kind of bully. Now that he had at last found something that he could do well, he didn’t want to become one of those.
Besides, loud- mouthed bullies are stupid. They show their strength, sure enough. They boast with it. Thus you can be sure they show ALL of it, all they have. Once you know about it, you can work out a way to outwit them.
The quiet guys are different. If you’re naïve, you might even mistake them for softies. But when some strength is needed, it suddenly turns out they have it. And when some other strength is needed, they have that too. You don’t know what to expect. You can never be sure of anything. So in the end you respect them.
The quiet guys are more dangerous than the loud- mouthed ones.
Tom wanted to be one of the quiet ones.
Killing the sheriff hadn’t been sensible. It was a disproportionate reaction, the kind of thing a stupid bully would do. Sure, the sheriff had been standing in his way. Was that a reason to kill him, to waste a bullet and to become an outlaw? Definitely not! It was stupid. And he had missed his chance to take revenge on that son of a bitch, Davidson. He should have challenged Davidson in the open, not in the saloon, then he wouldn’t have got away by hiding behind the sheriff!
Well, maybe Tom would change enough in one or two years to become unrecognizable. A beard would grow, and he would gain in maturity. He had left his home-town as a boy, and he would come back as a man, and then he would have his revenge!
But it still bothered Tom that he had shot the sheriff. He tried to explain it to himself in various ways.
First of all, killing the sheriff had been a precious experienc e. It was easy. He hadn’t needed to wonder whether he was capable of it. It just sort of …happened. The result had been somewhat shocking, but now he had got over the shock. And later, when he had those four outlaws in front of himself, he already knew how it is to kill a man. He knew he could do it because he had already done it. There was no hesitation. He saw them as targets and gave each one a bullet.
If he had suddenly wondered how it is to kill a man he would have hesitated just one split second too many and would have been shot himself.
Secondly, murdering the sheriff was the only way to demonstrate his independence from his parents. If he hadn’t done it, and survived it, he would never have left the town. It was necessary to do this impossible thing to cut himself loose.
Thirdly, Tom wouldn’t have been able to bear being the laughing stock of the whole town and to spend a night in the sheriff’s jail. After that he would never have got the courage to seek out Davidson and to kill him. It would have set him back by several years, surely. To knock down the sheriff instead of killing him would have been a possibility too, of course. But what if Tom had failed and ended up just grappling with him? The revolver was the only way to be dead sure.
So there was no other way Tom could have behaved. He had done the right thing. The three reasons were in actual fact just one single reason. But the fact remained that Tom should have killed that awful Davidson rather than the harmless old sheriff. It took Tom a week till he got to the next town. He was quite tired when he arrived, but not sleepy yet.
So he tied up his horses in front of the saloon and went in to have a drink. He sat down at an empty table and let himself be served. Half a bottle of whisky, a glass and a cigar. He never had any cigars on him because he never smoked when he was alone. For a while Tom just sat there, played with the smoke and sipped from his whisky. The glowing tip of the cigar poured out copious amounts of smoke, and this pleased Tom, this generous outpouring. It was like infinite sexual potency.
Tom pondered this. It was once again one of these thoughts that wasn’t really his own, that just somehow slipped into his mind from another source, from his inner voice that was sometimes like a real voice, sometimes not, but always there, accompanying him somehow…
But then he heard another voice, a really real voice this time, and he turned around. It belonged to a small, dirty- looking man who was obviously traveling, just like Tom. The man asked Tom if he cared for a game of poker. Tom wasn’t really an expert at that game – he barely knew the rules. But he had lots of money on him. He could afford to play and lose for a long time. The other man looked harmless enough. Tom would learn from him – this was his chance. So Tom consented to a game.
The small man laid down his hat and sat down opposite Tom.
The bar-maid brought the cards and the game began. Coins and notes started piling up on the table.
There were several hundred dollars on the table no w. The other men in the saloon started crowding round. These two tramps obviously meant business. One of them was going to make a fortune and the other one was going to lose one, the fortune of a life-time no doubt. Perhaps this was literally going to be a matter of life or death in the end… Tom’s opponent looked up into the eager faces as though he was looking for help. But then he looked straight into Tom’s eyes, forcing Tom to give up his vacant look and his easy- going attitude. The small man forced Tom to acknowledge him.
So Tom’s eyes focused. The two men looked each other in the eyes. There was a hint of sadness in the small man’s eyes. They were deep eyes in a wizened face with a fleshy nose.
Tom was reminded of his father, and he felt sorry for the small man. Apart from his small body-size and his dirty looks he also seemed old and tired. He had surely chosen Tom as a partner for this game because Tom looked just as much like a tramp as he did himself (he obviously hadn’t seen Tom’s boots…). Surely he just wanted a quiet, friendly game, but Tom had driven the stakes higher and higher.
“I have to opt out” he said. “I’ve run out of money.”
Tom felt a hint of pity stir in his heart, but his expression became hard: “We’re in the midst of a deal here!”
“It’s too much for me,” said the man. “I want to take it back.”
“You can’t do that!” said Tom.
The man looked deeply into Tom’s eyes again, hoping…, hoping to stir up a hidden hint of humaneness there. Tom didn’t know how to react. Perhaps he would have taken the other man’s money, perhaps even shot him if he was desperate enough to suddenly attack Tom. And then perhaps he would have felt guilty about it for the rest of his life. But it didn’t come to that, because suddenly a voice said: “Let me take his place!” A new man had appeared, with a dark hat, a dark, elegant vest and a mean glint in his eyes above a smartly twisted moustache that made his grin look permanently ironic. “How much money in that deal, shorty?” he asked the small man. The small man told him and the new man gave him the money. Then he sat down in the small man’s chair and said: “Okay, let’s go!”
Now it was Tom’s turn to feel uncomfortable. It was a fast game, and more and more money was piling up on the table. Luckily there was no need for Tom to opt out. He still had lots in his pockets. For a while he lost and had to take out more and more of his money, but then he won again. His opponent didn’t like losing. The less money he had, the more willing he seemed to be to bet it.
Then suddenly he snarled under his breath: “You damn … cheat!!!”
Tom felt flooded by a wave of relief. The game was over! They weren’t playing poker anymore. They were back in the real world. His opponent wasn’t a fancy card-sharp anymore. Now he was just a man, or rather a snake to be crushed. Dangerous but perfectly manageable when you know how to go about it.
Tom calmly exhaled the smoke from his cigar.
“You damn cheat! You smelly son-of-a-whore!” said the man.
Tom’s eyes became slits. He pushed his chair away from the table ever so slightly. His hands lifted off the table.
“Please say that again” he said, speaking slowly and distinctly.
“You – smelly – son-of-a-WHORE!” said the man. His voice had risen to a roar by the time he said the last word, and he stood up.
Tom didn’t move.
The man’s hand moved to his belt. Like a crab it started crawling along the belt towards the holster where the big mother-of-pearl grip of a large revolver was waiting. It was just a question of seconds now.
Tom was still sitting. His right hand came up to his mouth. He took his cigar with his index and thumb. There was a hint of puzzlement on the other man’s face. Which one was Tom’s gun-hand? His right hand was holding the cigar, and yet there was no holster on the left side of his belt.
Suddenly Tom threw away his cigar and sent it flying into the crowd surrounding them. For a split second his hand stayed there in mid -air where it had let go of the cigar. The other man didn’t know what to expect and his hand flew the last few inches towards the beautiful grip of his revolver.
The outline of Tom’s right pectoral muscle became clearly visible under his shirt as his arm came flying back to his side. Then his gun was in his hand and fired upwards twice into the face of the standing man.
No two holes appeared, just one big one at the root of the man’s nose. He toppled over slowly. Blood was oozing out of the wound and flowed into the eyes, and the eyes remained open.
Tom stood up and let the hammer of his revolver click back in place. It was a reflex to pull it back after each shot so that the next shot, if one was needed, could be fired more quickly.
Tom put his revolver back in its holster and started packing up the money lying on the table. He demonstratively left behind a little pile. When the small man reappeared to see what exactly had happened, Tom said: “This is the money I took off you today.” “You won it” said the small man.
“Well, I’m giving it back” said Tom. “Take it while I’m feeling generous.” The small man hesitated. He looked around at the other men, trying to figure out if anyone thought this was some kind of dirty trick. It looked as though no one really knew. Everyone seemed a bit stunned.
Finally the small man shyly came forward and started packing up the money Tom had left on the table for him. It was hard-earned money, not just bounty collected after firing a few shots. It really meant something to the small man to get it back.
Tom poured himself another glass of whisky and knocked it back. He was happy. Today’s adventure had ended well. He had made quite a bit of money once again and confirmed that he really deserved it by killing the other man. He was The Best. Nobody could take that from him – it was a fact!
He ordered a round of drinks and tried to relax. But it wasn’t successful – nobody drank to his health. Someone even said: “You’re just paying this with your victim’s money.” And nobody thanked him.
Tom explained that he had won this money in an honest poker-game and that it wasn’t his fault if he had to defend himself against bad losers.
“That you acted out of self-defense depends on the testimony of your witnesses, which means us” said the man who had already spoken before, and he got a few approving nods from the crowd. Tom gave him an angry look. When he had shot the outlaws in the other town, everybody had congratulated him. Why not this time?
Now the sheriff came into the saloon. “Who did the shooting?” he asked. Tom turned around and stood in front of him. Everybody quickly moved out of the space between them.
Tom had a good look at the sheriff. He was a tall, gaunt man with a narrow, hook-shaped head like a vulture. His features were thinly drawn and shadowy and betrayed no emotion. Two big revolvers were dangling at the narrow hips of the man. One had to wonder how the crooked, wiry legs could support that weight.
“Why did you shoot, stranger?”
“Did the man have any reason to threaten you?”
“I took two thousand dollars off him in a game of poker.”
The onion- like eyes of the sheriff bulged, almost popping out of their sockets. Then he said: “You can’t go that high in poker.”
“Here it says: no limit poker. He didn’t have to follow me so far if he didn’t want to.” “You’re under arrest!”
Tom sucked on his cigar. If the sheriff had been his boss or his teacher, he would have been afraid of him. He wouldn’t have dared to look him in the eye. But this was different. He didn’t have a boss. He was on his own, and he had his gun.
A little cloud of smoke came out of his mouth with every word: “Sheriff, are you challenging me?”
It became dead-quiet in the saloon till the sheriff answered at last, after swallowing noisily: “I am not alone. Even you can’t win against twenty men.”
“Before I die, I will have shot at least you, and perhaps a few others as well” Tom mumbled, his cigar moving up and down in his mouth.
These words just hung in the room. Like the smoke, the ominous stillness only dissipated slowly. Tom’s words were reverberating through the heads of those present. Some were already discreetly leaving the saloon.
Then the sheriff took up their dialogue again: “You really want to sacrifice your life, before your guilt has even been proven? Before you’ve even appeared before court?” “I’m above the court. So are you at this very moment. We’re above the court, and the court can’t help us. We’re above worldly matters and can’t appeal to them now. We’re just two men, facing each other. The rest of the world is meaningless for us right now. There is just one way to solve the problem between us, so that each one of us can return to his normal life - we let each other live. Or else we both die.”
A bitter-sweet smile appeared on Tom’s face. “You choose” he added as an afterthought. The thin, pale mouth of the sheriff twisted itself into the shape of a fake smile. He said: “You leave me the choice, then? Either I give in, or we both die? You’re younger than me, you know. You have more to lose…”
Tom knew that the sheriff was just trying to win time. And then he read in his eyes that something was obviously brewing behind his back.
Tom barked: “Barman, keep still or I’ll shoot the sheriff!”
The barman dropped something which clattered to the floor. Tom didn’t move. All the men were in full view, except the barman. “Come out to the front” said Tom. “No sudden movements, or the sheriff dies.”
Tom’s right hand was waiting. Its fingers were moving ever so slightly, gently, like the tender leaves of a young plant in the wind.
There was nothing for the sheriff to do but to draw his gun or to say something else. He said something else: “You’re a bit young to die already...”
There was no reaction from Tom.
For a long time Tom didn’t say anything. He wasn’t even looking at the sheriff’s face. He had a kind of faraway look because he was looking at nothing in particular, or rather at everything at once. At the slightest movement anywhere in his visual field, his gun hand would pounce. This gave him a cold expressionlessness that was hard for the sheriff to bear.
The big cigar sticking out provocatively from his unshaved face poured out smoke endlessly. Its tip had an evil glow.
With a monstrously indifferent tone of voice Tom finally said: “If you want to shoot, shoot.”
The sheriff felt paralyzed. If only someone had called out: “Sheriff, give up. That man will kill you!” If only someone had released him from this situation! He almost felt as though he were floating above his own body. If only someone had called him back down! No one said anything. It seemed clear that the sheriff would die. The men were getting ready to shoot Tom as soon as the sheriff drew his gun. While Tom shot the sheriff, the threat his gun hand represented for everybody right now would be lifted for a splitsecond. Within that split-second, ten or twenty guns would be drawn, point at him and fire. Tom would die right after the sheriff.
The sheriff was supposed to sacrifice himself. But he couldn’t. He felt paralyzed. Finally he slowly brought his hand to the buckle of his belt and unbuckled it. The belt with the holsters containing the two revolvers clattered to the floor.
Now the sheriff felt relieved. He dared to move freely once again. The paralyzing feeling was over. He went over to Tom and said: “I gave in. I believe you that you killed the man out of self-defense.”
Tom was still a bit suspicious. It was strange that the sheriff wouldn’t be more dejected after this defeat. He didn’t see that the sheriff was relieved, that he was simply happy still to be alive. The sheriff seemed to behave as though Tom’s victory had been quite ordinary, as if his defeat didn’t bother him. In reality the sheriff had lived through a kind of rebirth, and this experience had been more important to him than his defeat. Tom laid his hand on the grip of his revolver.
The sheriff said: “Let’s sit down. I have something to discuss with you.” Tom heard the euphoria in his voice. Did the sheriff still have a last trick up his sleeve? Tom slowly lifted his revolver out of its holster and held it against the sheriff’s stomach. Then he called out: “All you men, go home. I have something to discuss with the sheriff.” The men left the saloon disappointed. The barman had to go too and lock up the saloon. The sheriff met Tom’s suspicious stare with childlike guilelessness and stood in front of Tom’s gun with a childlike trust that he couldn’t have been faking. The sheriff knew that Tom wouldn’t kill a weakling, and that’s why he wasn’t afraid.
At last Tom understood that the sheriff’s behaviour wasn’t at all challenging his victory. Rather, it was underlining the absoluteness of Tom’s victory. Tom’s victory was so absolute that it had turned the sheriff into a faithful toady.
Tom put his revolver back into its holster. He took his glass of whisky and sat down at a table with the sheriff.
The sheriff told Tom of an outlaw who was staying at the hotel. Nobody dared to approach him. The sheriff begged Tom for help.
“There’s thousand dollars on his head that I’m willing to share with you.” Tom said: “I want them for myself. I don’t need any help.”
The sheriff said: “Well, I’m sorry. I’ll bring flowers to your grave.”
But Tom didn’t listen.
The sheriff put his belt back on and left the saloon. Once again Tom wondered how the spindly legs could bear the weight of the two huge revolvers dangling from that belt.
Tom had taken a hotel room. It was the first time since his departure from home that he could sleep in a real bed once again. He gratefully slipped in between the soft and clean sheets.
But then he somehow just couldn’t fall asleep. He was in the midst of a human settlement in which he had surely made enemies. True enemies, the kind who want to see you dead. In the last few days Tom had slept under the open sky, far from any human presence. Now he was in the midst of people, and it made him restless.
He laid his revolver under the pillow. The touch of hard, cold metal calmed him down somewhat, but not enough. He took out the revolver from under the pillow and laid it on his chest, his right hand on the grip. The weight of the gun on his chest calmed him down yet more, just like a teddy bear can calm down a child. Tom felt he would be able to sleep now. He let his thoughts wander.
Of course they wandered back to the saloon, to the duel. Not to the duel he had won against the rich rancher with whom he had played poker. There was no way he could have lost that one. When you’ve already killed six men, one more is just one more. No, he was thinking of the duel with the sheriff. Tom would have won, if the sheriff had drawn his gun, but not survived it. There was no way he could have shot all twenty men, and the twenty men knew that.
And yet Tom had won and survived. That was because none of the twenty men was prepared to sacrifice his life. Tom had made use of that fact, and that’s how he had won, all alone against twenty.
Logically, since Tom was the same kind of creature as the other men, he should have had a will to survive just as strong as theirs. The men should have been able to make use of his will to survive just as he had made use of theirs. How come it hadn’t happened that way? How come they ended up giving in rather than him? How come they all fell for his bluff?
A cold shiver rushed over Tom’s back as he suddenly realized he hadn’t bluffed. He would have fired his gun. Things had gone so far he wouldn’t have had a choice. He would have fired his remaining shots (two were in the dead man, one was lost because the drum would have gone past it when he pulled back the hammer again, so it would only have been three!). So he would have fired his three shots and then he would have been hit by twenty bullets at once!
Did he really despise his own life that much? How was that possible?
Tom thought of the cigar that was poking out from the midst of his stubbles, pouring out its endless clouds of smoke. It was clear what it represented. The power of rape. A power that is infinitely much stronger than the will to survive…
Without love, satisfaction is only temporary. The resulting disappointment leads to anger, and through this anger the victim of rape finally gets killed sadistically.
As Tom stood in front of the sheriff, the implicit threat of this mechanism, symbolized by the phallic cigar, was clear.
But the disrespect for your own life still needs to be explained somewhat more. There was all that smoke coming out of his cigar, huge swaths of it billowing out continuously.
Wasn’t that like an orgasm without end? Didn’t it represent oversized sexual potency? A potency that overshadows even the will to survive?
Tom couldn’t believe that a stupid cigar was all it took to be seen as a suicidal psychopath! There had to be something more.
Tom had assured everybody that he would shoot whoever moved. And all the while he had smoked, inhaling the smoke deeply, filling himself with it, then letting it out again… and longingly watching it drift away, getting diluted in the air, flowing awa y and disappearing.
As if he wanted to be carried away by the smoke. He didn’t manage, so he always had to take another lungful and try again…
He seemed like a man who expects nothing more of life. A man who wants to fly away, volatilize and doesn’t want to be disturbed in the process. A man who wants to disintegrate in the ambient air like smoke.
Or maybe a man who wants to cover the land as an infinity of snowflakes, or to blow across the prairie as a sand-storm, or to lick the beach like a wave stretching from one horizon to the other…
And why? Why this need for homogeneity?
Isn’t it the same wish as to float up from the ground and be surrounded, all naked, by nothing but air? To feel but one touch all around oneself?
Isn’t it the same one seeks in sex? This one, single, all-encompassing touch? The whole body feeling only that one, soothing touch, either because it dissolved in the medium, or because the medium itself is so structureless that there is no up or down, left or right, north or south. Structure has no meaning anymore.
But what’s the point of this wish to dissolve?
Maybe we all need this calmness, this utter relief of tension, from time to time. The structure of your body and your mind becomes meaningless. For a while, it isn’t maintained by any conscious effort anymore – it becomes soft, malleable. In this soft state a sudden impulse from the outside can shape you. It can leave a mark, like a stamp in liquid wax. When the wax solidifies, the mark stays, imprinted in the wax. A human being who rises up to heaven through caresses and heavy petting becomes like molten wax. Whatever happens to him now, whatever he experiences, he will bear the mark – love or hatred, hope or despair, embedded in the depth of his mind for ever. Whenever a couple of love rs leaves the real world, rising up to float aimlessly in the ether, a vague doubt gradually, insidiously sneaks into the most wakeful part of the brain – do we really want to dissolve into each other for good? It’s the last warning before the final, defin itive loss of the structure that has led you through your life successfully up till now.
If you do not heed this warning, you will dissolve in your partner altogether. You will have reached nirvana, and there is no way back from there.
When this ultimate warning reaches you, your brain is already so much switched off that it is unable to produce any logical, sensible kind of arousal. But this doesn’t matter. Any kind of arousal, however senseless, disturbs the narcotic state you are in and brings you back to life. It just needs to be violent.
And that’s exactly the kind of arousal that suddenly comes over you. It’s like an epileptic attack. Your whole body starts twitching spasmodically, all the muscles contract and relax rhythmically. All this without any clearly visible reason and without any plainly apparent goal.
And yet it fulfills one simple goal – it disrupts the narcotic state. It brings you back to reality, with a jerk that almost resembles pain.
And whatever your partner gave you while you were floating in the ether, it is now burnt into the deepest recesses of your mind for ever.
Tom, the smoking Tom, was like someone who has given up on his structure, be it the structure of his mind or his body or both. Someone who couldn’t bear life and who simply gave up. Someone who is floating in the ether.
But something might still suddenly wake up the narcotic brain again. Something might yet trigger the epileptic attack.
The revolver would jump into his hand, the hammer would click back and smash forwards, and the bullets would come flying with little wisps of smoke and the acrid smell of gun-powder. All this was automatic in Tom. So automatic that an epileptic attack couldn’t even express itself in any other way in him.
As long as the sheriff carried his two revolvers at his hips, any movement could prove fatal to him. Any movement might trigger the epileptic attack in Tom!
So he unbuckled his belt and let it fall to the floor.
And Tom had won!
That’s how easy it was!
Tom finally fell asleep, as though he was really carried away by the smoke of his cigar…
Tom woke up the next morning feeling relaxed and rested, in spite of all the thoughts that had coursed through his mind the evening before. He dressed up quickly, buckled the belt with the holster and slid his revolver into it.
Now he was ready. If he wanted to, he could leave the hotel-room now.
But something still disturbed him: it was his glittering feet. The sparkle of the diamonds on his boots didn’t fit in with the general image he wanted to convey. He looked like a big, glistening angel of death, like the glorious avenger of God. Tom didn’t want to be that. He wanted to be the lonely cowboy who doesn’t want anything from anybody, who goes his own way and only kills you if you stop him from lighting his cigarette. And yet it would be quite chic if sparkling diamonds suddenly and fleetingly appeared when the lonesome cowboy crosses his legs. People would see that there’s more to this guy than meets the eye at first. They wouldn’t know what else to expect and would thus treat Tom with respect.
On the other hand, if Tom showed his diamonds openly, everybody would see what there is to see. Everybody would guess that this man shows what he’s got, which obviously also means that there isn’t more to him than what he shows. In the end effect such a man gains LESS respect.
Whatever you show can never be as impressive as all the things people imagine when you leave them in doubt…
Tom started pulling his trousers out of the boots with the idea of covering the diamonds with the trouser legs. Then they would only show fleetingly when he crossed his legs. But then he thought something else. Today he wasn’t going to play the lonesome cowboy! Today he was going to seek out and kill a dangerous criminal! That doesn’t fit in with the cowboy who goes his own way and only kills you if you disturb him. Today Tom was going to CHALLENGE another man. To do that you have to play with open cards. Making use of hidden weapons is not fair game, and your victory will never be truly respected in that case. Everybody knows that you couldn’t play the same trick a second time, so they don’t need to give you proper credit for it. They know it doesn’t concern them anymore, and so in the end effect you’re just a coward.
If you want to be impressive when you challenge someone, you have to play with open cards. Winning while playing with open cards, that’s impressive!
So you see, you have to be careful – depending on whether you’re the challenger or the challenged one, to maximize the respect you get you have to play with intentionally open cards or seemingly unintentionally hidden cards. It all depends.
And since Tom was going to be the challenger today, he had to show everything he had openly, including his sparkling boots. Sparkling boots mean that you’re rich, meaning that you know how to get money, meaning that you’re competent, meaning that you’re a big-shot.
So Tom stuffed his trouser- legs back into the boots, leaving the sparkling diamonds exposed for everyone to see.
Now Tom was ready to leave the hotel-room.
He went down to the reception-desk. He showed the door-man the placard with the drawing of the man he was looking for. The door- man averted his eyes.
“Where does this man live?”
The door- man looked pained: “Please, sir…”
Tom blew smoke in his face and said: “Just tell me where he lives.”
The door- man looked upwards with scared eyes. “Number four…” he whispered. Tom rolled up the placard and went back up the stairs. He knocked on door Nr. 4 and stepped aside, so as not to be filled with holes, just in case. It wouldn’t have been necessary. The door opened. A girl appeared. A girl who did her best to look younger than she was, and Tom couldn’t help being reminded of the whore back home. Tom didn’t say anything, but smoke kept pouring from his cigar. He looked down at the girl and noticed that she wasn’t wearing terribly much.
The girl just said “Sorry, the master isn’t in” and tried to shut the door.
But just before the door fell to it was suddenly held back. A boot was trapped in it. The girl saw the glittering diamonds and froze with fright.
Now the door smashed open and the girl fell over. Tom was standing in the room, gun in hand.
It was too late: the outlaw was out of the window and running away on the roof. Tom heard the running steps on the shingles. Only the girl was in the room with him, sitting on the floor with a bleeding nose and sniffing.
Tom left the room and ran down the stairs and out into the street. The outlaw was jumping from roof to roof and was just landing on the street next to a horse. He mounted it in a hurry and galloped away.
The distance was too big for Tom’s revolver.
Tom untied Bess and led her out into the street. He pulled out the long gun from under the saddle. He leaned the gun on the saddle and aimed very carefully.
The rider and his horse were far away and receding fast. But Tom aligned the sights with care. He wasn’t going to miss. The dark silhouette of the rider and the horse were getting smaller and smaller, but they weren’t moving to either side. They were moving in the exact same direction as Tom’s gun was pointing. Tom’s bullet would catch up with them. Tom gently squeezed the trigger.
The boom was tremendous, then there was utter stillness. The gun let out a thin column of smoke, just like Tom’s cigar.
The receding silhouette of the rider on his horse hadn’t moved, and yet Tom knew that he hadn’t missed.
Ah, but now some movement could be perceived. The shape of the silhouette seemed to be shifting vaguely. The rider was obviously slipping off his horse. Then a dust-cloud rose up from the ground next to the horse. The rider had fallen off.
The horse slowed down and stopped.
Nothing moved where the dust-cloud had risen. The rider must be dead.
Wow! Tom was proud! One single shot!
He sucked on his cigar and was happy. He put away the long gun and kissed Bess on the nose. Then he mounted her and trotted to the body. He was prepared to draw his revolver in case it was necessary.
The bullet had hit the man exactly between the shoulder-blades. Excellent! Tom lifted the body and dumped it on the horse with which the man had tried to flee and which was just standing near-by, all lost. Holding its reins he mounted on Bess again and rode to the sheriff’s place, leading the other horse by the reins.
As the sheriff handed over the thousand dollars to Tom, he said: “That’s what I earn in three years, you know. I would be a rich man now if you had shared the job with me!” Tom answered coldly: “This guy was just waiting for someone who would dare to face him. You had plenty of time to do it before I arrived!”
Tom had never ridden any horse but Bess. It was an old dream of his to ride on a real big one. And, as things stood, he owned a really big horse, a good-natured gelding that he used as a pack-horse. He had a plodding gait and an easy-going manner, although the previous owner had warned him that he could get excited unexpectedly and bolt, so it was better not to let him unattended without tying him up.
Tom found him a bit dull, by far not as intelligent and sensitive as Bess. But he had noticed that even though he seemed so heavy and slow at a walking pace, he was quite a fast trotter. Surely he was comfortable for riding longer distances.
Tom wanted to try riding him today, so he put Bess’ saddle on him. In spite of all the saddle bags, it looked small on the back of that big horse. Tom pulled down the left stirrup as far as it went, and yet he still barely managed to put in his left foot. He grabbed a tuft of the gelding’s mane and pulled himself up. He didn’t manage to throw his right leg over the bum of the horse at the first try and had to start again. The second time he energetically swung himself right into the saddle. Sitting up there he noticed that his foot didn’t even touch the stirrup anymore. God, this was a tall horse!
Tom set the length of the stirrup, thinking to himself that he was really far off the ground. Then Tom tightened the saddle-belt. Not much tightening was needed. It had already been very tight when he put the saddle on in the first place, because Bess’ belt barely fit around this big horse’s chest.
Tom felt the large body of the horse between his legs. It gave him a strange sense of power, but also a bit of insecurity – it was a very different feeling from sitting on Bess’ slim back!
Now he was ready to go. He pushed his heels into the belly of the horse and steered him onto the street. The gelding plodded along slowly.
Tom wanted to go faster. Tom wanted him to trot. He let his feet slip backwards along the body of the horse and pushed. The horse didn’t react – he hadn’t even felt anything. Tom was slithering back and forth on the saddle and rubbing with his heels all over the belly of the horse. At the same time he was urgently lisping: “Trot! Trot now!“ The horse didn’t understand this. When he was ridden, he just did what he was forced to do. He wasn’t used to having to decide things for himself, or to “guess” the intentions of his rider.
Tom should have worn spores. Then a quick, decided kick of his heels would have done the trick – the gelding would have started trotting automatically.
But Tom had taken off the silver spurs from his expensive boots right after buying them. He didn’t want to snub his Bess, not even in a life or death situation. He was convinced he didn’t need spores.
The gelding on which Tom was sitting now didn’t understand his sloppy rider. Why was this human messing around so nervously? What the hell did he want?
Tom was gradually getting angry. He was jumping up and down in the saddle and hitting the bum of the horse with the flat of his hand.
The horse was getting irritated. He laid his ears back and suddenly reached back with his big head, as if he wanted to catch Tom’s leg that was continuously working on his tummy. Tom tore the head back by the reins, which the horse didn’t like either, having quite a tough mouth-piece.
Rider and horse were both getting nervous. The big gelding pranced about like an English thoroughbred, and Tom was hitting him with arms and legs like a drunkard warding off a swarm of angry bees.
Then the gelding rose up on his hind legs neighing loudly. Tom felt as though a volcano was erupting under him. He just barely managed to stay in the saddle by holding on desperately to the knob.
The gelding heavily fell back on his front legs and went off at a gallop. Tom tried to catch the rhythm of the gallop and to calm down the horse. But he didn’t manage. The horse was changing from one gallop into the other continuously, zigzagging through the country-side. Tom lost his grip. He was bouncing around in the saddle. He pulled on the reins in despair, and the gelding didn’t like that at all: he rose up on his hind legs once again, and this time Tom soared through the air.
He fell on the ground heavily and almost lost consciousness. He painfully started raising himself up again, hoping to catch the reins of the gelding before he ran away. He tried to talk to him soothingly, but no sound came. Besides the horse was gone.
Tom was staggering around undecidedly among the bushes, when he noticed a man on a horse behind himself. He turned around and recognized the small tramp from the saloon, the one with whom he had played poker. He was sitting on an old mule.
“I was just going to leave town when I saw you. Obviously you’re having some trouble with your horse.”
“Leave me alone!” said Tom and was surprised to hear his own voice.
“I can help you catch it again,” said the tramp.
“How could you catch my expensive horse with your cheap mule?” said Tom, feeling stupid even as he said it.
“My mule’s a good friend,” the tramp assured him. “You don’t express that in dollars, you know.” Then, as an afterthought he added: “If your horse just means money to you, then what do you care? You’ve got tons more of it in your pocket!”
“That’s not the problem,” said Tom. “I’ve just been dishonoured and defeated by that damn horse. It threw me off!”
“I guess it doesn’t like you much,” said the tramp.
“I don’t think it even ever wondered about that,” said Tom, “It just doesn’t understand me. I guess I’m not clear enough!”
“Well,” said the tramp, “you were pretty clear the other day in the saloon.” “Yeah, well the other day it wasn’t about working together or co- la-bo-rating, as they say. It was just about clearing the way, that’s all.”
“Clearing the way? What way? Are you going anywhere in particular?” “I’m going west.”
“What do you want there?”
“I want to find the ocean. I want to dive in there.”
“Well, to get there you need a horse. But if you don’t get along with people, you won’t get along with horses either.”
“Who said I don’t get along with people?”
“Why, you just said something like that yourself. All people are good for is to clear the way for you.”
Tom looked down at his feet. For the second time today he was defeated. Why had he let himself be dragged into this silly conversation?
“Okay, you’re right,” he said. “I don’t get along with people. But I have another horse. She’s a shy mare. She’s nothing without me. And obviously I’m nothing without her. We’re friends like you and your mule.”
The tramp smiled and said: “Well, that’s fine then. You go west together. She carries you, and you lead her.”
He went on smiling quietly for himself and then added: “Well, I’ll go and get your other horse for you, the one with whom you don’t have such an intimate love-affair.” And with these words he galloped off light-footedly.
Tom sat down on a grass-tuft and felt sick.
Soon the tramp came back, leading the now good-natured gelding by the reins. “Here’s your runaway. Get back up on him. I’ll hold him for you, so that he won’t bolt again.”
Tom painfully clambered into the saddle once again. All his bones hurt him. Back in the saddle he shivered a little with dread. The tramp handed him the reins.
“What’s your name?” asked Tom.
“Just call me Jim,” said the tramp, “and yours?”
“Tom,” said Tom.
They rode back to town in silence. The big gelding willingly followed the mule. He had always been a good-natured, obedient horse. It had never been his intention to annoy Tom. But there were certain things he couldn’t bear, and somewhere in his placid fieldhorse brain he felt quite entitled not to have to bear them. He was good-natured and fair, and his master had to have those same qualities. That’s all he asked for.
When Bess saw Tom come towards her, she lifted her head and pointed her ears. The small boy, who was standing in front of her trying to feed her a piece of apple was forgotten immediately. Tom walked up to Bess and she rubbed her head against him. Tom patted her. With his left hand he patted her muscular cheeks and her lower jaw, and with his right hand he patted the soft fur between her ears. Bess moved her head up and down, and sometimes Tom’s face completely disappeared in her mane.
After a while the greeting was over. Tom laid his arm around Bess’ neck and whispered little nothings in her ear. He said: “I’ll never again ride anybody but you. You are my force, my propelling force. Without you I am nothing. We belong together.” Tom played with her mane. With his other hand he patted her nose.
Bess looked at Tom with her big, brown eyes and turned her head a bit, so as to blow warm air into his face from her nostrils. Tom blew air at her too, and her nostrils opened wide to receive his breath.
Suddenly she lifted her head a bit more and turned it questioningly to the side. Tom remembered too late, what this meant. She brushed over his mouth with half-open lips. She had just given him a kiss in horse-fashion!
Tom wiped his mouth against his sleeve and told himself that he probably liked these kisses on some level, since he never managed to evade them…
Jim was standing nearby, watching with an enigmatic smile. The boy with the piece of apple too.
“Where did you get the horse, mister?” the boy asked.
“From my mother,” answered Tom.
“I’d like to have a horse too, but my mother doesn’t give me any!”
“Well, just look around. Surely there’s a horse somewhere just waiting for a nice boy like you!”
The boy gave Bess the piece of apple and left with a dreamy air.
Tom and Jim left the horses to their own affairs and went off to buy a few things for their trip to the west.
Towards evening, as it was getting cooler, the trip began. Tom sat on Bess and led the gelding by a long leash. The gelding followed Bess willingly. Horses usually like to follow each other – it’s in their nature. Bess was trotting along merrily, as if the west was drawing her too, as it was drawing Tom. It seemed she liked to be underway with Tom and didn’t appreciate the stops in the towns much.
Jim was riding on his old mule next to Bess and Tom.
Tom asked him: “That time in the saloon – how did you dare talk to a quiet, dangerous guy like me?”
“Well,” Jim answered, “that first time I saw you with your bottle of whisky and your cigar all alone at that table in that dreary saloon, I knew straight away that you were just waiting to be talked to. Hoping for it.”
“Yeah, I guess you’re right…” said Tom. “But how did you know?”
Jim didn’t answer straight away, and in the meantime Tom forgot all about the question he had asked. He was enjoying this moment of departure from the town with Bess, leaving the human settlement behind once again. Now there was just the lonesome prairie ahead, over which a little wind was often blowing, drawing little clouds of dust, so that the ground seemed to be flowing and floating rather than hard and firm.
It really wasn’t hard and firm, because foot-prints never survived in it long. When you rode into the prairie, soon enough you were absorbed by her and the tethers binding you to your fellow human beings and their hard and cold world were loosened. Tom let his thoughts wander dreamily. Life itself is like the prairie – always in a process of change, but still always remaining itself. Just like the surface of a lake – never quite still, always wrinkled by little wavelets, and still always true to itself. You can swim and splash in it – the surface always finds its way back to its placid but never quite immobile self.
Humans are scared of the visible surface of their soul. They don’t understand it. They’d like it to be clean and flat, which it never is, never completely. There’s always some movement on it – it’s never completely smooth. So they build dams, trying to make the surface as small as possible. They want it as small as to be completely blank like a wellpolished mirror. But one day the soul b ursts through all the dams and flows freely across the prairie once again.
Tom was all absorbed by his poetic thoughts. He let Bess carry him over the prairie as though he were sitting on the tip of a wave gliding along. Bess was trotting merrily. She was rested and in a fine mood, glad to be on the way again.
Jim called out to them, tearing them both out of their expansive mood.
“Not so fast! My mule can’t keep up!”
Indeed, the mule had fallen behind. Bess slowed down. Jim caught up with them and started talking. Tom wasn’t so happy about it at first. But then he realized that some part of him really yearned for human warmth, for the rise and fall of a human voice. His eyes became moist as he listened to Jim, but that could have been caused by the wind. In any case it wasn’t because of the content of what Jim was saying.
Jim said: “You’re a cold guy. Your eyes always hidden in the shadow of your hat. Nobody sees what you feel, if indeed you have any feelings. You light your cigar with dead-steady hands when people want to kill you. Nobody can tell what you’re up to, even though all your movements are slow and deliberate. You always seem to be far away, even when one is standing right in front of you. When you’re close to us, we still never feel close to you, if you get my meaning. You go to people, but you don’t mix with them. You seem like some kind of alien. Nobody can tell who or what you are, so we all get out of your way, as a precaution, so to speak.”
“But you didn’t get out of my way, it seems,” said Tom.
“That’s because I’m as peculiar as you,” said Jim.
Tom didn’t ask Jim what he meant, so Jim continued: “You sit at your table, all alone, blowing smoke into the air and not looking up when you’re talked to. You only react when you feel irritated. Then you throw away your cigar, which up till then had been the sole focus of your attention, you look at the other man with a cold, long stare, and then you shoot him. Your whole behaviour is like a glorification of your basic inability to solve conflicts instead of just eliminating them.”
“What’s the difference?” asked Tom, surprised.
“Well, if you SOLVE conflicts, you get friends. If you just eliminate them, you stay alone.”
Tom had nothing much to say to that. He wanted to say that he liked to be alone, but that was only half true, after all.
They rode on for a while in silence, but then Tom hesitantly started talking about himself. “It’s true that I don’t really have any friends,” he said. He told Jim about how jealous he had always been of Jack Davidson. Jack was Theresa’s brother, and sometimes a big brother is a bit of a model- man for his younger sisters. In the sisters’ eyes, that’s how young men should be. Young girls know their brothers and have learned to get along with them. It’s a basis for getting along with other young men too, when the time comes… Well, Tom liked Theresa. He liked her a lot. To please her, he should have been a bit like Jack. That’s why Jack became a bit of a role-model for Tom.
Tom didn’t have any other role-model. His father had been a tired and bitter old man who disliked and despised everybody and hid from other people. Nobody liked him much either, so he lived in a world in which he occupied no space. He was like a piece of emptiness. Tom didn’t seem to get any kind of support from him, except on rare occasions when he was some kind of silent ally against his all- to-present and at times cumbersome mother…
So you could say that Tom was looking for a kind of father. Except that you couldn’t really call it “father”, since his concept of “father” was tainted. He looked for a father who wouldn’t be too fatherly.
And that’s what he saw in Jack, in that dynamic young man. Jack was just two years older than Tom, but that was enough. Tom still felt that Jack was way ahead of him. Jack could have been a good mate for Tom, but unfortunately they hardly knew each other, or in any case pretended that they didn’t know each other. Jack was a selfconfident young man who was very aware of his social standing and wouldn’t mix with miserable sheep-farmers.
But what would have happened if Tom had ever dared to face Jack and ask him in a friendly manner if he could try out the beautiful black stallion?
Probably Jack’s eyes would have sparkled nastily, and he would have answered with a condescending smi le that unfortunately this horse isn’t for beginners.
Then he would have jumped into the saddle and galloped away, leaving Tom standing there in a cloud of dust.
Or maybe he would have held the horse so that Tom could mount it. Then he would have shown Tom how it all works, smiling and occasionally laughing at Tom’s ignorance, and perhaps he would in the end have taught Tom to ride. Of course Tom’s admiration for Jack and his splendid horse would have been boundless – all the more gratifying for Jack to exp lain things to him!
Unfortunately all this was just pure fantasy. In reality Tom never dared to address Jack like that, and he ended up losing touch with Theresa too.
Jim listened in silence as Tom vomited up his undigested youth. Then he asked: “But why didn’t you dare to face Jack?”
“First I wanted to learn how to handle a gun,” said Tom.
“And then? Then you would just have shot him or what?”
“I guess I wouldn’t have shot him…” Tom hesitated. “Maybe I would just have teased him a bit with the gun, shown him that I’m good at something too, that I’m worthy of being his friend.”
“So you felt unworthy of him, then?”
“Well, sure! It was fine for my parents to despise everybody and to feel, self- righteously, that whoever was richer than them was bound to be a cheat. It didn’t really work for me. I had to find my own place in the world.”
“Well, why didn’t you, then? Why didn’t you just go out there to find your place?” That was a damn good question. Tom didn’t know what to say. He thought about it for a long time as they rode on in silence.
Finally Jim said: “Maybe somewhere deep down you still despised everybody, just like your parents did. It didn’t really satisfy you the same way as it seemed to satisfy them, but it was the only way to deal with the world that you knew.”
“Yes,” said Tom, “I guess I really despised everybody, above all the big-mouthed Davidsons!”
“And you still do,” said Jim, “I mean, just look at what you’re doing, killing people wherever you go…”
“Yeah, I guess you’re right. There’s nothing but contempt in me, contempt for everybody, for the whole world! I so wish I would be able to feel something else, for someone!”
“Yeah, contempt,” said Jim, and he started to explain, in his own words, what that concept means at all.
When you overlook somethin g willfully, that’s contempt. You see that someone else is successful with something, but you refuse to acknowledge it. You pretend to yourself and to everyone else that this person’s success is only temporary and doesn’t deserve to be acknowledged. You pretend that this person’s success is undeserved, due only to luck, and thus temporary, and thus not worthy of acknowledgement.
You do that out of jealousy, perhaps, but some people will hear you. Some people will start to have doubts. In some way you undermine the success of the successful ones. That’s contempt.
Tom agreed. His parents despised the Davidsons because of the grandiose façade of their shop, behind which the actual building was quite ordinary. They claimed loudly that the success of the Davidsons was due only to this façade. One day others would realize too, and the Davidsons’ success would collapse! The Millers, in their infinite wisdom (or rather their infinite contempt), knew this was going to happen sooner or later, so they ignored the Davidsons’ success already now. They demonstratively lived as though the Davidsons didn’t exist, because it was below them to acknowledge the Davidsons’ passing existence. That’s what you call contempt.
Except that it was fake. Maybe contempt is always fake. To despise means to overlook willfully, but that’s a contradiction in terms - you cannot overlook something willfully. You can only really overlook something when you really didn’t see it…
And the Millers were forced to see that the Davidsons’ business was booming. The guns sold there were of good quality (Tom could attest to that, couldn’t he?). It was a serious business. In reality there was nothing fake about it, however beautiful the façade of the shop was. Who said that a façade should be ugly?
Contempt, that’s what’s fake!
By more or less ignoring the inhabitants of their town, the Millers locked themselves out of everything. Nobody despised them in quite the same way as they despised everybody. People didn’t need to overlook them willfully. That wasn’t necessary at all. People just really didn’t notice the Millers all that much – no need to do it willfully.
So the Millers were locked out of the town-life, and they ascribed it to their being poor, which they soon saw as a special kind of virtue. Anybody less poor had to be a cheat, especially the Davidsons! They despised the Davidsons so openly that the Davidsons had to react in some way. The reaction was to despise the Millers in return.
The Davidsons lived as though the Millers and their nasty remarks didn’t exist at all. The Millers’ nastiness was meaningless because they were so poor that they would come begging for the crumbs of the family-table sooner or later anyway.
Jim had to understand that Tom could never make friends with Jack under these conditions. But Jim didn’t want to understand.
“Look, Tom,” he said, “if you didn’t despise Jack personally, then the two of you could have become friends in spite of the feud between your families.”
“Maybe I despised Jack after all,” said Tom.
Jack had tamed his horse with the whip. The big stallion obeyed under pressure. In some sense Jack had raped the proud animal.
Tom despised this kind of training. He never abased his own horse. He never forced her. Bess obeyed him out of good-willingness.
Tom was convinced that the big stallion would throw Jack off one day. And then Tom, sitting on his beloved Bess, would triumphantly overtake poor Jack sitting in the dirt! So Tom despised Jack. He had even found his very own reason to do so! Isn’t it sad when you despise your own role- model?
Tom had to despise Jack, or else he would have had to despise his own parents and the whole way of life in which he had grown up. Accepting Jack would have meant accepting Jack’s contempt for all this. Tom had some contempt for all these things himself, but not so much that he could have accepted Jack’s contempt.
Jack couldn’t stop despising the Millers either, since they had despised him and his family first.
For all these reasons Tom was convinced – had to be convinced – that hitting a horse with a whip (as Jack did) was BAD!
Tom’s softness didn’t start with the whip – he was quite incapable of formulating a clear order. Luckily he had a sensitive mare who guessed her master’s wishes by herself. But Tom had had to realize that you couldn’t ride all horses with this gentle method. His big gelding was a point in the matter. He was quite willing, but he needed clarity. He couldn’t bear gentle softies. Surely Jack’s stallion was the same.
When the stallion obeyed his master, it wasn’t, as Tom liked to think, because he had been abased. No, it was a kind of deal. Jack was the boss. He had triumphed over the horse in a way that the horse could understand, in a way that one horse triumphs over another in wildlife too. The defeated horse can always run away, set off on its own, join another herd. Or it can give in to the victor, bow to him and in exchange enjoy the orderly life that he provides. The stallion had decided to accept Jack as his boss. When Jack hit him, it was, perhaps, because he had bucked – that’s justice. If Jack had been an altogether unfair boss, perhaps the stallion would have decided, one day, to escape. Or he would have stopped being obedient, until he would have had to be gotten rid of. Such things happen to horses. It had undoubtedly happened to Bess whose previous owner had ruined her character, so much so that she had become practically useless as a horse, until Tom had tamed her again.
If the stallion had ever tried to bite Jack, the whip would have lashed out – that’s all. If Bess had ever tried to bite Tom, he would have buried his head in her mane and cried. A high-spirited animal couldn’t bear such a reaction. A high-spirited animal doesn’t want every devilment on his part to be a huge, disruptive catastrophe. A high-spirited animal needs his limits to be shown to him in a clear and even way, with the whip when necessary. Little devilments mustn’t be allowed to disrupt his whole life, else he’ll end up not daring to breathe anymore, or rather he’ll just rebel and escape! Little devilments must be dealt with in a stride, and that’s how Jack had trained his wild stallion, successfully!
Bess was a careful and anxious horse – that’s why she got along so well with Tom. A more spontaneous animal would never have got along with Tom, his overdone gentleness and his exorbitant expectations.
Both Tom and Bess had been hurt deep inside. That’s why they got along. They lived in some kind of symbiosis. Someone like Jack would never understand that… A little later, Tom asked Jim shyly: “Did you ever sleep with a girl?”
“Sure,” said Jim, staring ahead.
“And how was it?”
“How should it have been?”
“I don’t know, can’t you describe it?”
Jim said: “Look, if a small kid in the crib asked you how it is to walk, what would you say? You just stand up and walk, that’s all there is to it. You can’t really describe it, can you? You can just do it!”
Tom remained silent. So now he knew what he was. He was a child in a crib who can’t walk. That’s what he had been for twenty years. Except that after twenty years you can’t be a child anymore – if you still can’t walk by then, you’re a cripple!
Yes, he was a cripple…
Tom was pondering this, sinking into sweet self-pity, the kind that usually turns into bitterness if you don’t check it in time. Tom still had to shoot many, many men before he would be able to overcome this bitterness once and for all…
He started talking again. He asked Jim: “What kind of girl was it?”
“Well, you know, she was the town-bike. All my mates started with her too.” “How was it the first time?”
Jim started thinking. Then he said: “I don’t know. I had dreamed about it often. I had fantasized about it too, but when the time came, I wasn’t sure anymore that I really wanted to do it. But my mates cheered me on, and when I was finally there in the wagon with her, I wasn’t sure I wanted to be there. But she just smiled at me, a little bit mockingly, but not unkindly. She came up to me, lifted my chin and kissed me on the mouth. Then she whispered in my ear, so that my mates outside wouldn’t hear, that everything would be okay. After that she kissed me more loudly, and my mates cheered outside. And you know, then it was really fine.”
Tom remained silent. Somehow this was so different from his own experience with his first whore. Had the whore he had met been less kind, or less pretty? Maybe. Or maybe it was mostly the cheering mates – that’s what had been missing. The mates cheering him on, and cheering her on too!
Tom suddenly felt so damn lonely!
“Tell me more…” he said.
Jim remained quiet for a while. Then he said: “Look, I really can’t tell you more. I just can’t.”
Tom exclaimed: “But how will I ever learn if nobody explains it to me?” “Hell,” said Jim, “you just can’t explain these things. It’s not that they’re so special or anything. It’s just that they’re not for explaining, that’s all. I don’t know how else to say it. Just find yourself a girl and do it, and you’ll see for yourself!”
“I tried…” said Tom.
Now it was Jim’s turn not to get it: “What do you mean? It… it didn’t work, or what?” Surely it occurs to almost every boy doing it the first time that it might just, you know, suddenly not work… But Jim had never heard of such a thing happening for real. “No, it didn’t,” said Tom.
“And when you’re alone?” asked Jim.
“Then it works,” said Tom.
“Well, then don’t worry about it! You were just nervous, that’s all. It doesn’t mean anything!”
“You think I should try again?”
Jim had to think. Finally he said: “I don’t know. I guess not just like that, because you’ll be even more nervous, knowing that it didn’t work last time, and it will be guaranteed not to work. No, I guess you shouldn’t go and try it. Rather, it should happen to you somehow, when you’re not prepared, when you don’t have time to be nervous. I don’t know. Truth is, I don’t like to think about it, about it possibly not working, I mean. Maybe no man does. It… I mean, you… you just hope it will never happen to you, and then it doesn’t, but if you think about it, then it might, so you rather don’t think about it. I don’t know what to tell you…”
Tom had to wonder. It was interesting how Jim was speaking about this. As if he wasn’t too sure about these things either. Maybe nobody is? It was the first time Tom spoke with a man this intimately.
“When you’re with a girl, it’s better than when you’re on your own, isn’t it?” asked Tom. Strangely enough Jim didn’t answer straight away. Finally he said: “Well, most things are better when you share them with someone, aren’t they? But… the thing itself, well, I don’t know. It’s not always really so different. With some women... you have to think of something else. You imagine something that isn’t there, as if you were on your own. Sometimes what you imagine is nicer than what there is… I don’t know. This is a hard question.”
Tom was nonplused by this answer. “Then what on Earth is the point of doing it with a girl?” he asked.
“Well,” said Jim, “maybe when you’re really in love it’s really different. I don’t know. I haven’t done it with any girl with whom I was really in love… Or maybe it has nothing to do with love. Maybe it’s all about knowing how to share it. I really don’t know…” “But you rather do it on your own or with a girl?” asked Tom.
“Nowadays I don’t bother so much,” said Jim. “But when I was younger I went to see the town-bike often. Most of my pocket money went to her.”
“What for?” asked Tom.
Jim hesitated a bit, looking for words, and finally said: “I guess I needed her to be a witness to my budding sexuality. Not because the thing itself felt so much better or different with her.”
Tom had always thought that the missing ingredient to be instantly released of his sexual mania was a girl. Inexplicably he had failed with the whore he had gone to see in his home town. Well, now he gradually began to realize that it’s just really not that simple. Girls are easy to get (there was enough money in Tom’s pockets to pay for a staggering four hundred whores) – that’s not the real problem.
The beauty in Tom’s mania was the new world that it promised to open up. Sharing something utterly new, utterly forbidden, and yet so natural, so basic… That’s just the beginning. Then you stand in front of each other, knowing each other’s every whiff, every taste, every nook and every cranny, like you’ve never known anybody else before, except maybe your mother when you were a baby.
Then you build a shady house in the endless prairie and raise a few kids. When the kids are big and have moved out, you brew some coffee while she knits you a scarf, and together you look forward to the next visit of your grandchildren, and you live happily in the small, warm house in the wide, wild world.
Was that really Tom’s dream?
On some level it was. Not really consciously. But it was more or less what his parents had done, wasn’t it? Of course they had done it all wrong. He would do it better, much better. But he would still do it. It belongs to the natural order of things. It wasn’t so much that he imagined all these things. It was rather that he didn’t imagine anything else! And all this has to be in there somewhere. In there when you sleep with someone. You can’t fake it. A whore can’t fake such a dream for you, because if she did, that would cost her so much emotional energy that she would be forced to make the most out of it afterwards, make it worth its while, which means she would end up wanting it for REAL. And if she wants it for real, then she’s not faking it anymore, is she? So in actual fact you just can’t fake it.
Tom asked Jim: “Did you ever think of getting married?”
“No,” answered Jim, and his voice didn’t sound ve ry happy.
“So what are you looking for in life?” asked Tom.
“I’m trying to save up money for my mother.”
“Is she poor?”
“Yes, she is poor. Her husband was shot during a bank robbery. She has two children from him, two little girls, my half-sisters.”
“What about your father?” asked Tom harmlessly.
There was a long silence. Finally Jim said: “I know nothing about him.” There was another long silence, then Jim added: “My mother was seventeen when I was born. She was just a little girl, but my birth changed her life for ever.”
Jim paused again, then he said: “My mother was already thirty-five or something when she finally met her husband. He was a widower. He was …okay. He was honest and hard-working. I think my mother really loved him. They had two children. They were a family. It was... hard for me. But I love my half-sisters. It isn’t their fault. Then he got killed. I... I had hoped something like that would happen to him.”
Jim was silent again for a while, then he looked at Tom earnestly: “You have to be careful with what you wish, because you never know if your wish might not be granted in the end!”
“But surely it isn’t your fault that your step-father got killed!” Tom called out. “Maybe not,” said Jim, “but I had hoped something like that would happen to him. I had hoped for it for years! And now I feel guilty…”
“But…” Tom began.
“I know,” said Jim, “I wasn’t even there when it happened. I didn’t live with them. I didn’t even know about it for a long time.”
“So it’s not your fault,” concluded Tom.
“And yet… Anyway, I’d like to buy my mother a little place of her own from which she and my half-sisters could live.”
“And you never thought of having children of your own?” asked Tom.
“Well,” said Jim, “it is more important to me to care for my half-sisters first. I think first one should look after the already existing people before making new ones.” Tom pondered this for a while in silence.
Then Jim asked him: “What about you? Would you like to have a family?” Tom was surprised by the question. “Me?” he asked.
“Yes, you,” said Jim, “Why not?”
“Well…” Tom didn’t know what do say. His life seemed so meaningless, so empty. Not long ago his biggest wish had been to become independent of his parents, to escape from their miserable sheep-herder existence. Now he had really escaped, and his pockets were full of money. So, what now?
Did he really want to start raising a family? On the long term he probably did. But in the meantime he had no idea what he was doing here in this world.
Yes, he had money. But he didn’t really know what to do with it. He wasn’t going to spend it on four-hundred whores, he knew that much. And yet he definitely felt the pain of not having experienced sex, of possibly not being able to experience it, ever… Jim had experienced it. He was ahead of Tom in that sense. But he didn’t have as much money as Tom. Jim would have known what to do with the money, but he didn’t have it. Tom had all the money, but he didn’t have the sexual experience. Each of them had something that the other badly lacked, and the y were both about equally lost. Tom was still pondering these thoughts when Jim’s voice interrupted him: “My dear friend, you still have far to go before you can start raising a family!”
“What do you mean?” asked Tom, surprised.
“You can’t find a woman before you’ve found a man,” said Jim mysteriously. “You’re talking in riddles now,” said Tom, disappointed.
“No, I’m not,” said Jim, “all I mean is that you won’t find a woman as long as you haven’t been initiated into manhood. Men and women belong to each other, but no woman belongs to you as long as you don’t feel like a man.”
“In what sense am I not a man?” asked Tom. Perhaps he should have felt insulted, but he didn’t. Jim was on to something here. Tom was honestly curious about it. “Well,” said Jim, “you behave like someone who would like to be a man, but who isn’t.” “Explain,” said Tom.
“Well, you challenge men until you have to shoot them. Logically one day you will meet someone who is faster than you, and then you’ll die.”
“Do you think deep down I wish to be shot?” asked Tom.
“No,” said Jim, “I think deep down you would just like to find out what makes them men. You would like to see what they have that you lack.”
“How can I find that out if I just shoot them?” asked Tom.
“Yeah, that’s the problem, I guess,” said Jim. “Each one you shoot is one less who has something that you lack. In the end you’ll be the only man left on earth. That’s a way of solving the problem too, I guess…”
“And if I get shot myself?”
“Well, then at least you’ll know what he had that you didn’t. Except that you won’t be able to do much with that knowledge, since you’ll be dead.”
“I don’t see any way out of this conundrum,” said Tom.
“Well,” said Jim, “what a man has that you don’t have is not necessarily speed on the draw.” Then, after a short pause he continued: “One day a man could come along who just doesn’t draw his gun. You challenge him and challenge him and he just doesn’t draw. What would you do then?”
“Draw first?” asked Tom.
“No,” said Jim, “you wouldn’t draw first. That wo uldn’t be your style. I think you wouldn’t know what to do. There you would be standing, the two of you, face to face, and nothing happening, the two of you just staring each other down.”
“And then?” asked Tom.
“Then you might see that this guy doesn’t want to shoot you. That he rather wants to give you a chance. Perhaps you would end up confiding in him. He would be your mentor, a kind of a father. He would initiate you into manhood, and you would become a real man, a man who feels like a man.”
Tom said: “I don’t know. All this sounds a bit contrived.” Then he was silent for a while, and then he added: “But maybe you’re still right somewhere deep down. I’m looking for a father. All the men I’ve known so far just lived their lives without caring about me. When I tried to get their attention, they just turned away, brushed me off. Or indeed tried to shoot me down, except that then I shot them instead. No man was ever patient with me. When I confront men, maybe deep down it’s just a desire to be noticed by them. Maybe I’d like them to take me along on their manly ways.”
“Yeah,” said Jim, “I guess you’re really just a fatherless boy. You’re looking for a father, and nobody has time for you. You’re also kind of flippant with your gun and shiny boots. Boys will be boys – they’re boisterous! Without the guidance of a fatherly hand they get out of hand. They become like you and just leave dead bodies behind wherever they go. But it doesn’t even make them happy. They go deeper and deeper into the West, not knowing where else to go or what else to do.”
“Maybe I should never have got a gun…” said Tom sadly.
“Well,” said Jim, “I guess deep down you’re convinced that in principle everybody wants to destroy you. So you want to prove to everybody that they can’t do that. That’s why you need the revolver. Without it you wouldn’t even dare to go out among people. You never experienced being dominated without being hurt at the same time. That’s why you don’t let yourself be guided by anybody. Nobody will guide you without a certain amount of dominance, and the problem is you can’t accept dominance, since you believe that it’s the same as wanting to destroy you.”
“What should I do, then?” asked Tom.
“I don’t know,” said Jim. “I guess you just have to go on the way you’re going for the time being. One day you’ll be defeated, and maybe you’ll die of it. But if you don’t, you’ll have learned something. You’ll have learned that you can be dominated without being destroyed. You’ll have found the guy to whom you can and must submit. He will become your mentor, your father. And then, at last, you’ll learn. And you’ll become a real man.”
Tom and Jim didn’t talk much more after this.
They were approaching the next town. They knew there was a dangerous gang of outlaws there. Maybe they would meet them in the saloon.
You can’t just shoot a whole gang of killers. Not in one go anyway. But you can join the gang and destroy it from within. And maybe learn a lot of things in the process. Tom and Jim reached the town in the evening. Tom went straight to the sheriff’s office and asked where he could find some outlaws to shoot. The sheriff answered matter-offactly that Nacho and three of his men were in the saloon. Nacho was worth ten thousand dollars.
Tom and Jim walked to the saloon, leading their horses by the reins.
“I’ll get him!” said Tom.
“Hey,” said Jim, “but he’s worth ten thousand – he has to be a really great outlaw!” “He won’t be my first!” said Tom with conviction.
“But other times they were on their own,” said Jim.
“No, they weren’t,” said Tom.
Jim didn’t know what to say anymore. Under a thousand dollars an outlaw is still an ordinary man, even if he keeps a whole town under his spell. If your head is worth more than a thousand dollars, you’ve got to be a legendary figure. But ten thousand! That’s only for historic outlaws, the kind you would learn about in history books a hundred years from now!
And Tom thought he was just going to wipe out such a historic figure! If he managed, he would make it into the history books himself! And if he failed he would just be one of the countless, anonymous victims of the famous ten-thousand-dollar outlaw… As Tom came to the saloon, he made a plan. The saloon stood at the end of a row of houses and had two big windows on one side. Tom would try to talk to one of the outlaws in front of one of those windows, away from the others. As soon as he had shot the outlaw, he would flee through the window. If nobody recognized him after that, he could repeat the maneuver, and that’s how he would kill one outlaw after the other, till he had shot the whole gang.
His idea was that Jim would stand at the entrance with the long gun and intervene if necessary.
Tom led Bess to the first of the big windows. Bess had to stand with her bum against the wall. Instead of tying her up, Tom rolled the reins around the saddle-knob. He stayed with her a little while and patted her spotted nose. She pushed her soft, warm snout against his hand.
When Tom left she knew that something was still going to happen, else he would have loosened the saddle. She knew he would be back in a little moment and that they would ride on. Probably he would bring her a carrot. That’s what he usually did when he went into a shop. So Bess stayed there with her bum pointing to the window and waited for her carrot.
Tom pushed his way through the swinging doors of the saloon. Jim waited a little moment and then followed him. Jim didn’t feel comfortable. He was afraid of what he might have to do. He told himself that he just felt awkward because he had come into the saloon carrying a long gun and was now standing at the entrance like an idiot, as if he didn’t dare to go to sit at one of the tables. He put himself in a corner holding the gun behind himself. Luckily nobody noticed him in the smoky room. He could watch what Tom was doing and told himself that Tom was really very courageous!
Tom spotted the four outlaws straight away. Two of them were standing at the bar, and they had much more space for their elbows than any of the other drinkers, even though the saloon was pretty crowded at this time of day. Two more were sitting at a table next to one of the two side-windows, the one behind which Bess was waiting. Those two sitting at the table looked like pirates. One of them, the “captain”, had a glass of whisky in front of himself, the other, his body-guard maybe, was drinking from a big jug of beer. Why did Tom think of pirates? Because of the extravagant clothes, of course! Pirates, spending most of their time amongst each other unless they happen to be attacking another ship, can allow themselves to dress as they like.
The “captain” was surely Nacho in person. He had an unkempt beard like all his other men too, but he wore the nicest clothes, like a sumptuous uniform. As Tom got closer, he saw tha t they were worn and dirty. But they still had a theatrical effect.
Nacho’s eyes were extraordinary– deep and dark and piercing. His mouth was twisted into the most absurd shape, the shape of a shy, expectant smile. Otherwise the authority radiating from him was like a sour stench, and his brow showed fierce determination. The child - like twist of his mouth under his piercing, pitiless eyes, was scary. Something as moody as a small child, and yet with the power and authority of a grown man – what can be scarier than that?
Tom walked up to the table with a few quick strides and neatly spat right into the jug of beer.
Nacho’s body- guard stood up violently, upsetting the chair on which he had been sitting. His hands were at the buckle of his belt, but he hadn’t drawn his revolver. He was a big rock of a man, wearing a long, heavy coat that gave him the shape of a bell. He wore the belt with his revolver over the coat. His face was stone -hard and scarred. Tom was ready to shoot him. He estimated the angle his gun would have to travel to hit the second man, Nacho.
Nacho vaguely lifted up his head and ever so slightly shook it in his body- guard’s direction. The body-guard obediently stayed still.
Now Nacho turned to Tom. He laid down his cards and said: „Would you like to play?“ There was fake embarrassment in his voice, thinly, very thinly veiling the sinister threat contained in the question.
To his horror Tom saw that the body- guard was slowly pulling out knives and guns from his belt and putting them on the table.
Nacho comfortably leaned back in his chair and said with fake friendliness: “Well, my friend, let’s see how well you do in the continuation of this game. Take off your belt!” Tom heard his inner voice saying: just draw your gun and shoot them! It’s dead-easy, only Nacho is armed!
But somehow he couldn’t.
He had the same indescribable feeling as that time long ago, when he was standing in underwear in front of the whore. It was the same kind of situation as then. He had somehow got entangled in something, and although he felt it wasn’t going the way he wanted, he still kept going forward instead of trying to disentangle himself. All he would have had to do then was to tell the whore that she wasn’t quite how he had imagined her and leave. All he had to do now was draw the gun and shoot the two outlaws!
His hand went to the buckle of his belt.
“Draw the gun! Draw the gun, damn you!” his inner voice screamed.
And yet he didn’t.
He loosened the buckle and the belt with the revolver fell to the floor.
Exactly the same action as the one he had performed in the stuffy room of the whore, when he had taken off his underwear.
What for? What the hell for? He wasn’t really going to beat up Nacho’s body-guard, was he? He was just going to get beaten up himself!
The bell-shaped body-guard was standing in front of him, looking huge in his heavy coat. His face was rather expressionless, but his eyes shone with a kind of greed. Tom felt tiny and fragile.
The big man came closer. A kind of smile was starting to twist his mouth. Tom felt his knees getting soft. He looked desperately around himself. There was the big man coming closer and Nacho, calmly smoking a cigarette, watching.
Perhaps Tom could have dived to the floor, grabbed his gun and shot Nacho, who wasn’t ready for that, and then the body-guard whose gun was on the table – he wouldn’t get it into his hand fast enough either.
But Tom didn’t try it. This was supposed to be a fist-fight, not a gun- fight. He strongly felt he couldn’t just break the rules.
Now the big man was standing directly in front of Tom and was going to slam into him. But Tom quickly dodged him and hurled himself towards the window.
He threw himself into it with all his might, closing his eyes and pulling his arms against his body.
There was an explosion-like clink of glass, so that his ears almost burst, but he got through and landed on Bess’ back.
He threw his arms around her neck and she galloped off in a fright. But soon she felt Tom’s body adapting to the rhythm of hers, and she relaxed.
Tom wanted to leave the town, just like this, in the middle of the night, leaving behind his new friend Jim, his pack-horse with all the stuff it carried, and above all his gun that he had left in the saloon!
The thought of not even having his revolver with him made him slow down. He wasn’t just going to flee, like that previous time when he had left his home-town in a big hurry, was he? Not without his revolver!
Tom turned Bess around and rode back into town.
He met Jim in front of the hotel. Jim said: “Ah, here you are! You really gave me a fright! Why didn’t you just shoot those guys? What the hell were you thinking when you dropped your gun?”
“I don’t know,” said Tom.
“Surely you weren’t going to beat up The Boy!” said Jim.
“The Boy?” asked Tom.
“That’s what they call him. Nacho’s first lieutenant or whatever he is.“
“He doesn’t much look like a boy to me,” said Tom.
“Yeah,” said Jim, “so why didn’t you just shoot him?”
“I couldn’t,” said Tom, “I couldn’t just do it in cold blood.”
“Come on, it would hardly have been cold blood!” said Jim.
“Yes it would,” said Tom, “Boy was unarmed.”
“The hell he was,” said Jim.
“Maybe it has something to do with what we discussed on our ride here,” said Tom. “Yes, I see… Maybe…” said Jim. “Anyway, now you know in what sense some people are stronger than you!”
“Where are the outlaws now?” asked Tom.
“They left town,” said Jim, “and they left behind your revolver. I got it for you.” “Thanks,” said Tom, and they led the horses into the stable.
So Tom could sleep tonight – the outlaws were gone!
But Tom still didn’t understand why they hadn’t just tried to shoot him. Why this whole matter of dropping guns? He asked Jim what he thought about it.
Jim said: “Obviously they don’t want to draw too much attention. That means they’re planning something important, something concerning this town. If we stay here, we’ll surely see more of them!”
After having brushed down their horses, Tom and Jim went to their rooms. Tom didn’t sleep very well. He had crazy dreams. He woke up early in the morning for no particular reason. He had been dreaming something, something uncomfortable. The atmosphere of the dream was still all around him. He tried to remember what it was, but he couldn’t. Thinking about it just seemed to have erased it!
With a vague feeling of dissatisfaction at having left something unfinished, he stood up and drank a mouthful of water from the jug in his room.
It was dawn outside. Tom saw the milky light behind the curtains. He pulled them aside and looked out into the quiet street. He saw the saloon, a group of miscellaneous houses and the bank. The bank was a flat building made of stone, standing all alone on a kind of platform that was also made of stone. Two guards were walking around on the platform. Tom counted the number of seconds they needed to walk around the whole building. About thirty. Tom wondered if they really just walked round and round the whole night. Surely they would sit down to smoke a cigarette in the small hours, when it wasn’t so likely anymore that their boss would turn up to see what they were doing! Tom was just wondering how best to rob such a bank, when the door to his room suddenly opened!
Tom’s hand shot down to his hip, where his revolver should have been, and he turned around. Jim came into the room.
He was all dressed and didn’t even look sleepy. “Aren’t you sleeping?” Tom asked, surprised.
“I was watching the street from my window,” answered Jim. Without waiting for Tom’s answer he continued: “Get dressed quickly and go out. Your good friend The Boy is out there, hiding in the shadow at the corner of the hotel. Talk to him. Behave naïvely. If necessary, shoot him. But I think it won’t be necessary. He will behave himself. He’s on a kind of mission for the gang and can’t afford to get involved in a gun- fight with you! Try to tag along with him. Perhaps he’ll take you to their hide-out!”
“But…” said Tom as Jim was already pushing him out of the room.
Tom quietly opened the hotel-door and slipped out into the dark street. He saw a horse standing in the shadows. Behind it there was a man. Yes, it was The Boy all right! Tom cautiously sneaked up to him. Then he gathered up all the courage he could muster, stepped into the light and walked up to the outlaw openly. The man was lost in thought, it seemed. Actually he was counting.
“… twenty-one, twenty-two...“ he mumbled. He was probably counting the steps of the patrol, just as Tom had done a little while ago!
Tom walked right up to him and said: “Good evening!”
The man just said “Thanks” and went on counting. It had almost sounded friendly. When he had finished, he suddenly lowered his eyes and looked down at Tom. “Who are you? What do you want?” His voice had turned nasty, especially compared to the almost sympathetic mumble of a moment ago.
Tom answered straight out: “I wanted to say sorry. For the beer I spat into.” “How did you know I’d be here?” asked The Boy.
“Well, you’re preparing the bank-robbery, aren’t you?” said Tom.
The man’s eyes became wild. Perhaps he was going to knock down Tom. But this time Tom was ready to shoot him. There wasn’t going to be any game of taking off the belts this time! This man was worth about a thousand, dead or alive.
Finally the colossus calmed down.
“You wana take part?” he asked matter-of-factly.
“Oh yes!” said Tom with conviction.
“Then get your horse and come along!” said the man and got on his own horse. Tom went to fetch Bess in the stable, quickly saddled her and led her out. He gave her a little bit of sugar to wake her up and mounted her.
He followed The Boy till the end of the town. There The Boy turned around and said: “Go ahead!”
Tom knew perfectly well what that meant. As soon as they were far enough from the town he would be shot in the back.
Naïvely he said: “But I don’t know the way!”
The fat giant had to accept this argument and led the way in silence. He obviously didn’t consider Tom especially dangerous. He would be gotten rid of later. Just as long as he wasn’t left loose – he sure knew too much!
After a long ride the two men arrived at a ruined church standing all forlorn in the landscape. Not much could be seen of the remains of the settling it had once belonged to. Just some stone-walls here and there forming partitions which must once have been the foundations of houses. The Boy drew his revolver and shot at the bell in the churchtower. Tom was surprised that the bell had been left hanging when the church was abandoned… It was surreal, somehow. The shot echoed in the heavy midday-air and the bell clanged sadly.
The heavy door of the church opened up and a man - quite an ordinary one it seemed to Tom, not at all an extravagantly dressed pirate like the ones who had been in the saloon waved to The Boy and to Tom to come closer. They got off their horses and led them right into the church!
As Tom’s eyes got used to the dim light inside, he saw that a corner of the church had been laid out with straw for the horses. In another corner Nacho and his men were dozing, or rather had been dozing, because now they were awake, leaning their heads on their elbows.
Tom and The Boy left their horses at the feeding trough and walked up to the men. “I’m bringing a new recruit,” said The Boy.
“I see,” said Nacho and didn’t seem especially interested. “What about the patrol?” “I counted till thirty,” said The Boy. “Should be possible.”
Nacho stood up and theatrically looked around at his men, like a spoilt child expecting to be patted on the head. As if by chance his glistening dark eyes reached Tom. And as if they were surprised to see him here, they stayed stuck on him.
“What does our new friend say?” he asked sweetly.
Tom was nervous. But he had his gun with him. Yes, it was there in its holster at his hip! Nacho was just a wild animal. There are ways to deal with those. There’s a technique. No need to be nervous!
So Tom forced himself to stare right back at Nacho. He imagined the little hole a bullet from his gun would open up in Nacho’s brow. A little hole that would be smeared shut with blood straight away. Then Nacho’s eyes turning upwards till you would see only the whites of them, and then Nacho falling over backwards…
Tom saw all this clearly in front of his inner eye, and he became dead-calm. He got a cigar and a match from his breast-pocket. He took his time. He put the cigar in his mouth and lit the match by rubbing it against his thumb, holding it between his index and his middle finger. He held the flame against the tip of his cigar with great care. Holding the match dead-still, he sucked the flame into the cigar. When he had finally exhaled the first swaths of smoke, he answered: “Any bank can be robbed if you go about it methodically.”
Nacho gave him a slow, timid smile like a small child who has just been praised, but none of his men would have wanted to be in Tom’s place!
“That’s just how it is!” he said in a self-pleased tone, but then his voice and expression changed abruptly.
“Tomorrow we rob the bank in Anthony,” he said to all present, and it wasn’t a proposition. It was an order.
“We hit them in the early morning hours. You all know your jobs. Furthermore, three of you will leave tonight and attack the small bank in Earlham, drawing away the posse from Anthony. Ned, Ted…” (he spat out the two names) “and…”
Nacho turned to Tom. His voice became sugar-sweet, and he smiled with swollen lips, as if he were dying for a kiss.
“…and you, my little friend!”
Tom lifted his eyes from his cigar and mumbled: “Name’s Tom.”
The fun was over. Nacho was serious again.
“The three of you are leaving tonight to attack the bank of Earlham. Shoot, kill, as much as you can!”