Life as a Ghost | By: Frank Siegrist | | Category: Short Story - Fantasy Bookmark and Share

Life as a Ghost


Part 1

Me

 

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 you 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 wheel. 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 high-way 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 whom 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 at 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 having 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 enough 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 night-watchman 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 highway-bridges – 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 seen me, 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 sub-consciousness 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 “hand-shaking” 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 for 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 that 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 you 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 scientific 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 nestled myself in his forehead and started looking at the world how he saw it.

 

 

Part 2

The bounty killer

 

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 mother 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 always 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 clumsy as 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 they had 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?”

“Like what?”

“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 somehow 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 concern themselves 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 colourful.

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 colourful 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 allow 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 against 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 self-confidence 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 Tom, 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 with 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 weapon-hating, 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 eventually 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 shots 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 quite 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 between 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 enough 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 all-encompassing 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?”

“Of course!”

The boy pointed out an old Whiskey-bottle lying on the street some distance 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 you 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 tendentious 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?”

“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 sun-shine. 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 look 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 earnings 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!”

“We couldn’t.”

“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!”

“I’m going!”

“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 conversations 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 man 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 conscience 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 middle-aged 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 peace-time 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 men were 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 concentrated. The muscles in his right arm tautened imperceptibly. His fingers put themselves in position. A moment went by.

Now!!

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 opened 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:

“Bravo!”

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 unrolled 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 nobody 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 experience. 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 now. 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?”

“Self-defense.”

“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 split-second. 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 away 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 lovers 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, definitive 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 field-horse 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 well-polished mirror. But one day the soul bursts 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 self-confident 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 smile 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 explain 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 something 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 very 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 they 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 wouldn’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-of-factly that Nacho and three of his men were in the saloon. Nacho was worth ten thousand dollars.

Ten thousand!

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 that 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 church-tower. 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!”

 

Tom found a spot for himself at the wall from which he could keep an eye on all the others. They were quiet. It was still too early for lunch. They were talking softly or dozing. Tom watched the horses sniffing at each other. They were calm and seemed contented. It was soothing to watch them.

The horses knew that even a brute wouldn’t just suddenly start tormenting them if they did their work as was expected of them. In the same sense, Tom knew he wouldn’t suddenly be murdered either. Nacho had found some use for him, even if just as some kind of dummy. As long as he didn’t try to escape or do some other crazy thing, he would be left to live.

One of the horses lifted its tail and dropped big balls, in which some straw-stalks were still clearly visible, onto the church-floor. Tom wondered how it was possible that these elegant, high-legged animals with their long, slender heads, their wise eyes and their shiny fur could be nothing more than digesting machines like he was one himself. Even these proud animals had to admit, from time to time, that they couldn’t just keep everything inside them that they had eaten up so matter-of-factly. The biggest part of what they had swallowed, seemingly so irrevocably, had to be given back to nature. Even these noble steeds had no real sway over matter. Behind their long, beautiful tail there was a hole – an asshole, to be precise – out of which stuff kept falling that they hadn’t been able neither to keep nor to destroy. It had to be given back.

Tom looked at the outlaws and thought to himself that every single one of them had an asshole too, and that each one had to give back to nature most of what he devoured during their undoubtedly gruesome feasts. But unlike the horses, the outlaws surely went to hide when they had to stool. They were human, after all. They ate together, but they didn’t stool together. That was a weakness that each one more or less kept hidden from the others.

Tom’s eyes wandered on to the many statues of clay that were still standing around in the abandoned church. Some of them were being used as hat-stands. There were pious shepherds dressed in long robes, with sandals and a shepherd’s crook. There were female angels too, with beautiful and sad faces.

You would have liked to embrace them, to hold their head against your chest. But you couldn’t do that, because they had mighty wings on their back. There was no way your arms could have reached all the way around them.

Their hands were joined together in prayer, and their face was looking up into the sky, begging and yearning simultaneously. Unfortunately you couldn’t see the eyes, because they were hidden under a cowboy-hat…

The angel had come to the bad men to save their souls. But the bad men didn’t understand. They thought it was a hat-stand. They pretended not to see any other use in these angels. They put their hats on them to show their contempt.

Contempt means willfully overlooking certain facts whose meaning you refuse to acknowledge. If the bad men had REALLY overlooked the facts (rather than doing it willfully), they would have put their hats somewhere else. There were certainly other, more obvious places where hats could have been put in this church.

Tom thought to himself that these outlaws couldn’t be as strong as they wanted to seem if they couldn’t even bear the sight of the pious eyes of an angel and felt the need to cover them with a hat.

Tom was just thinking that the angel, if she has a mouth, must surely have an anus as well. But the big wings on her back would hinder you from ever getting close enough to find out. The anus of an angel can’t have any meaning for you, because you’re never going to approach it.

Now Tom’s eyes found a small, genderless cherub with short wings. He was short-limbed like a small child and had curly hair. He was holding some kind of cloth in front of himself, conveniently hiding his genitals. But his behind wasn’t hidden, and the two rounded buttocks had been modeled quite distinctly.

This one definitely must have an anus between those buttocks of his, mustn’t he?

So angels definitely have anuses too, but either they are too young, or they have such big wings, that it becomes meaningless to us human beings.

But they are sufficiently similar to us mortals to be able to understand us. Surely that’s the point of angels.

It got time for lunch. A big fire was lit in front of a window without glass. Half a pig was skewered over it. After a while the still somewhat reddish meat was shared out. Nacho in person threw Tom a piece of ham and a piece of old bread. Wine was served in old beer-jugs. It had a rotten smell. Tom later got a headache from it.

The tough, smoke-laden meat wasn’t appetizing, and the dry bread stayed stuck in his throat. The others seemed to enjoy their meal, though. Since Nacho was laughing and seemed in a good mood, they allowed themselves to become pretty loud too. The meal turned into a feast, and the wine was passed around generously.

The feast was still in full swing when Nacho suddenly turned silent. The men around him turned silent too, because when Nacho was quiet, everybody had to be quiet. Not everyone noticed the change, though, and Nacho had to call out: “Silence!”

The laughter and talking died off instantly. A whole minute passed in utter silence. Nacho looked at his men, one after the other, his chin thrust forward and his eyes full of fake pity and sorrow. His men knew that look – it meant he could turn sadistic in the blink of an eye.

After a long while he turned to his jug and took a rather loud gulp.

Hereby he had broken the silence at last – he would get to the point now.

With the jug still touching his lips he said: “Ned, Ted and Tom, it’s time for you to head to Earlham!”

Ned and Ted stood up and saddled their horses. Tom took a bit longer to stand up from the corner where he had been sitting or lying for the last few hours. He lifted up his saddle that he had used as a pillow and carried it over to Bess. Ned and Ted had practically thrown their saddles onto their horses. Tom put his on Bess gently and shifted it into position with care, as he had learned from his school-mate long ago. Ted and Ned jumped on their horses and rode out of the church. Tom followed them.

After a few hours of trotting, Ned decided it was time for a break. They stopped, unsaddled the horses, found some wood and lit a small fire. Tom filled the rusty pot with fresh water und placed it onto the fire.

Then he stopped caring about the two men and their coffee. He rather watched the horses who were grazing in their usual carefree manner.

Tom wasn’t carefree. He was wondering what the day held in store for him. He didn’t have any clear idea yet how he would finish off Nacho and his gang. He had even less of an idea how he would stop the two bank-robberies, and whether he really wanted to stop them. He had heard that the bank of Anthony held more than half a million dollars. How would it feel to plunge his hands into half a million dollars?

On the other hand, what could he have done with that much money? He couldn’t have spent it all in one go. That would have been more than suspicious – it would have been a glaring confession to the robbery! So he would have had to spend it in small amounts, but he wondered whether the life of a human being was really long enough to spend half a million dollars unsuspiciously…

For the first time Tom also wondered what Nacho and his gang might want to do with the money. Nacho’s face was known to everyone – how would he ever get a chance to pay for anything honestly, except maybe occasionally for whisky in a saloon?

Besides, Tom couldn’t picture Nacho as a rich rancher and father of a large family. Nacho was an outlaw all the way through. He would never want to live on a farm with countless helping hands, a pretty wife and many nice children – that just wouldn’t fit his style. He would always have other dreams, criminal dreams. Money, money, money… - just what could possibly be the point of it in Nacho’s case Tom couldn’t imagine!

Maybe it wasn’t really about the money. Maybe it was about rising to the challenge and demonstrating power!

And then what? What the hell do you do with all that power? Power, just like money, allows you to reach goals. But if you don’t have any goals, then it all becomes rather useless.

Maybe Nacho had once had the same dreams of a fulfilled life as everyone else. A good job from which to make a decent living and a nice family. Deep down that’s all there is to a fulfilled life. It’s just strange that for some people it seems so hard to get.

Nacho hadn’t been able to get it, obviously. Maybe he didn’t even know that it would have been the right thing for him. Maybe he was lost.

Power is always a good thing, because it allows you to do other things that you really want. So when Nacho got some power he was happy. Except that he didn’t know what to do with it, since he didn’t know what the other things were that he really wanted.

Since gaining power had once given him some satisfaction, he went on to gain some more. It was better than doing nothing anyway. So then he went on to gain yet more. It was never enough, since he still never got as far as to know what to do with it. So he just went on getting more of it! For ever! It had become an addiction!

Until one day someone like Tom would come along and kill him.

Deep down this life couldn’t be very fulfilling for poor Nacho. But standing still would have been no option either. As long as there’s movement in your life, there’s at least a hope of change (and thus of betterment). Standing still means that either you’ve accepted the situation as it is, or you’ve given up hope.

Maybe Nacho knew, deep down, that he was never going to get anywhere. He was a great outlaw, and all he could do was to become a yet greater outlaw, or go to prison or be hanged. It wasn’t really an option anymore that he would ever become a decent, honest farmer or anything like that, was it? But the wilder his life was, the less chance there was of thinking about it too much. And wildness means continuous movement, continuous change, and thus continuous hope, even if it’s not really a real hope in this case…

Maybe Tom was just as lost as Nacho, but he decided here and now never to fall in the same trap as Nacho. He would keep his hands off the money of the bank of Anthony!

If you invest too much in a certain path, you end up becoming unable to follow any other. Tom didn’t want to make that mistake.

He was just wondering whether maybe his parents had made exactly this mistake by seeing their poverty as a kind of virtue (“at least we’re honest, not like certain other people!”) instead of fighting it, when he heard Ted’s voice behind himself:

“Don’t you want any coffee?”

Tom turned around slowly. “Sure I want some!” he mumbled.

He sullenly sat down with his two comrades. Ted handed him a hot tin-cup. Tom took a few sips with long pauses in between.

Nobody spoke.

After a little while Ned stood up and walked away a few steps into the bushes. He left behind his belt with his guns. He undoubtedly had a little private business to attend to.

But his absence seemed to have a magical effect on Ted. He became talkative.

“How did you join up with Nacho’s gang?” he asked Tom.

“Well,” said Tom, “I challenged The Boy. But he didn’t want to draw attention, so we didn’t fight it out. He took me along instead.”

Ted was flabbergasted.

“And you?” asked Tom. “What are you doing with these guys?”

Ted didn’t feel like answering. He was quite new to the gang himself, and he wasn’t really sure he wanted to stay part of it. But he didn’t know an easy way out.

Instead of answering Tom’s question, he called out: “You challenged The Boy?! I don’t think you’ll live long! Why on Earth did you do that?”

“Well,” said Tom and scratched his elbow, “I wanted to shoot him and Nacho and cash in. They’re worth a fair amount of money, I’m told.”

“If that were so easy, someone would have done it before you,” said Ted.

“Someone has to be first,” said Tom. “You’ll see, I’ll turn you all in, the whole lot of you.”

Tom said this so matter-of-factly that Ted didn’t quite understand what he meant. It wasn’t much of a joke, and yet, what else could it be?

In the end Ted pretended to take Tom seriously and said: “Nacho is kind of famous, you know. Not like you. Nobody ever heard of you.”

“They will, in time,” said Tom calmly.

“Why would they?” asked Ted.

“Because,” said Tom, “turning in a whole gang of killers, one as famous as Nacho and his friends, isn’t an everyday thing.”

He said this so damn calmly once again. If it was all a joke, it really wasn’t all that entertaining. What’s the point of a joke that isn’t entertaining? Ted was getting a bit tired of this, and slightly annoyed too.

“Look,” Ted finally said, “you wouldn’t even be able to beat me in a duel, let alone The Boy or Nacho!”

“Let’s bet on it,” said Tom.

“What do you want to bet with?” asked Ted, “what do I get if I kill you?”

Tom put his hand in his saddle-bag and got out a fistful of dollars.

“You get this,” he said dryly.

Ted’s pupils became huge, then they contracted and became very small.

Tom heard some rustling sound behind Ted. Ned was coming back.

Tom quickly put away his money.

Ned appeared from between the bushes and Ted pulled his gun. Tom’s left hand was still in the saddle-bag, but his right sprang forward with his own gun, cocked and ready to shoot.

But that wouldn’t have been necessary, because Ted had turned around and shot Ned rather than Tom.

The sudden bang was still singing in Tom’s ears when Ned’s lifeless body came crashing down almost on top of them, the head plunging into the glowing embers of the fire.

Ted looked over to Tom and was a bit surprised to see that Tom was holding his gun in hand firmly pointed at Ted’s chest.

Tom said quite calmly, even though there was unmistakably some reproach in his voice: “You just shot an unarmed man!”

“In a fair fight even the two of us together would never have been able to beat him,” said Ted.

“Now I won’t ever be able to prove you wrong, will I? Why did you do that?” said Tom.

“I’ve just decided, here and now, to leave Nacho’s gang,” said Ted, “I’ll be satisfied with half of your dollars!”

Tom didn’t answer at first. Then he said: “You can’t have half – either the whole lot or nothing!”

“Look,” said Ted, “I just did you a good turn – now you’re free! There’s no other way you could’ve gotten away alive from this adventure!”

Tom said: “Look Ted, I can see that you think I’m dreadfully naïve. I guess you need a practical demonstration. So let’s cut through the bullshit, okay?”

“What do you mean?” asked Ted, and now a glimmer of doubt came up in his mind.

“How much are you worth?” asked Tom.

“I don’t have any money on me,” said Ted.

“If I turn you in, I mean,” said Tom.

“I don’t know whether I’m even wanted yet…” said Ted.

“Do you want to find out, or should I rather turn you in dead?” asked Tom.

Ted said: “Look Tom, enough is enough. I guess you were right about one thing – let’s cut through the bullshit!”

They both stood up. Tom slowly lowered his hand with the gun. Ted’s gun-hand did the same, slowly.

Tom’s eyes weren’t looking into Ted’s eyes anymore. He was not looking at Ted as a person anymore, but rather as an object to be looked at whole. A fleeting thought crossed Ted’s mind: being stared at like this, that’s how a strip-tease dancer must feel…

Tom dropped his gun into its holster. Ted did the same.

Tom’s right hand was hanging next to the holster, relaxed.

Ted begun to understand that he had probably badly underestimated Tom. Tom had seemed like such an ordinary young lad. Ted had thought that Tom was badly out of his depth in Nacho’s gang and that he was just hoping to bluff his way through, as inexperienced young men sometimes try to do.

Now he saw that perhaps he had been wrong. Very wrong. Tom was a killer. Maybe he would really beat The Boy, and Nacho, and all the others...

Ted’s arm was tense, his hand nervously hovering above the holster. Ted’s eyes were looking at Tom’s face, hoping to see a glimmer of weakness there, but there was none.

Ted’s tongue was sticking out between his teeth, but it wasn’t funny. It was pathetic. Tom’s outline seemed more and more like a shadowy threat and less and less like a tangible opponent.

Ted had the feeling he was losing his footing. His knees became weak. He felt he was in an impossible situation.

Maybe he should call out, while there was still time: “I give up! Let me live!”

But then he remembered that he had shot men before, men who had seemed much more formidable than Tom. Tom was just a kid. A careless kid not knowing what he was doing, bluffing beyond reason out of inexperience.

So Ted pulled himself together, bit his tongue and drew his gun with a sudden burst of courage!

A quick spasm flicked through Tom’s arm, that was all. Else he stayed as immobile as before. The report of the gun echoed in Ted’s mind.

Ted’s gun fell back into its holster, from which he had barely started lifting it, as he clutched the wound in his chest. His last living impression was of the slim wisp of smoke rising from Tom’s gun.

Then he fell over.

Tom came over to the dead body and turned it round with his foot. The body was bleeding worse from the mouth than from the deadly wound in the chest. The silly bugger had almost bit off his tongue!

“Conceited little guy,” thought Tom to himself as he hauled him onto the horse. He tied him to the saddle.

Then he got Ned’s horse and hauled Ned’s body onto it and tied it on too. He tied the reins of one horse to the saddle-knob of the other. Then he saddled his own horse and mounted, holding the reins of Ted’s horse in one hand.

Finally he rode off, leading the other two horses behind himself.

And he continued on the way to Earlham.

So, he had stopped going west! For the first time since escaping from home he was purposefully going in another direction!

All this just for Nacho. Was Nacho worth it? Nacho wouldn’t be the first one Tom shot to get some money. The others he had done in just in passing. Why was he going to so many pains over Nacho? What was different about Nacho?

Well, Nacho wasn’t just Nacho. He had a whole gang of killers. If you didn’t kill them all, they would just find a new boss and come after you. They would find new members for their gang too. As long as you hadn’t killed every single member of the gang, the gang would survive.

So it would never do to just shoot Nacho and a few of his close mates. You had to wait for a chance to kill all the others too. You had to wait for a chance to kill all of them TOGETHER. It was the only way to uproot the gang, and that was Tom’s goal.

Tom inwardly tapped himself on the shoulder for finding such a logical explanation.

But actually he didn’t really believe in it, he had to admit to himself.

Nacho was the boss of the gang, and without such a boss the gang can’t survive. You can’t just find a new one just like that. His mocking, sadistic ways, combined with his fake childishness, made him unique.

Children are weak, but they don’t bear responsibilities. Nacho showed himself in a child-like way, BUT HE WASN’T WEAK, and that made his child-like unpredictability and moodiness extremely dangerous.

It was the continuous, complicated and unpredictable show of Nacho’s emotions that held the gang together. The members of the gang had no time to fuss or squabble among themselves, because they were all under the spell of Nacho’s every move. They all had to pay attention to Nacho and had no time for anything else – that’s what held them together!

If Nacho disappeared, the gang would collapse. They would probably finish each other off without any need for outside intervention. You don’t find a gifted charlatan like Nacho every day.

So it was quite useless to want to kill the whole gang – all you needed to do was to kill Nacho. The rest was trivial. And Tom should have done that the very first time he met Nacho. It would all be over by now. Tom would be on his way west again, with lots of fresh money in his pockets, instead of shuttling between Earlham and Anthony on some crazy mission!

There was but one other possible motive for Tom’s behaviour – he hadn’t killed Nacho, because in principle he didn’t want to kill at all. He wanted to experience what makes you into a MAN. He challenged men so that they would “show the man”. So that he would see at last what made them into men. It was just an accident that he kept having to kill them. But it hadn’t happened with Nacho yet, so maybe there was still hope…

And yet, did Tom really believe that a sadistic outlaw was going to make a good father-figure for him? Was he totally crazy or what?

Well yeah, he was undoubtedly crazy. Else he would be leading a normal life, wouldn’t he? He would have a proper job and he would be dancing with pretty girls in the town-square…

But what is it really about, this whole matter of becoming a real man? Is it a question of power?

In terms of power, Tom had already reached the highest possible level, hadn’t he? The power to take another man’s life. Is there anything beyond that?

Power… Is that what power really is, to be able to kill other people?

What can power mean if not the ability to head for your own, personal goals? If you don’t have a goal, having power becomes pretty meaningless.

Killing people can help you reach some goals. So it’s a form of power. But wouldn’t it be much more powerful to get people on your side rather than killing them?

Every living human being is a potential power, and whoever makes this power work for himself quickly becomes much more powerful than a lonely gun-man.

Maybe a big part of the power residing in the ability to kill is more about threatening to kill rather than actually doing it. But threatened people will never be as faithful as true friends, and they never help you with ideas and motivation of their own. Extorting people through your power to kill is powerful, but not as powerful as having friends.

So it seems the power to kill is not the greatest of all powers after all. The power to make friends is far greater.

But it’s still all a questions of goals. Before you can say what you mean by “power” at all you need to have a goal. Whatever brings you closer to that goal is power. And whatever stops you from reaching it is weakness. But first you need to know your goal, else the concepts of “power” and “weakness” are meaningless.

If your goal is to kill outlaws to make money, then the ability to kill is definitely powerful!

Killing outlaws to make money. Yes, money. But money is just a means. When you have money, that means you have the means to… to do something else. To do whatever. It’s up to you.

You need to have a goal, else money is meaningless.

So the question is: what was Tom going to do with his money?

What’s it all for?

If you don’t know what it’s all for, then how can you say you have power? If you don’t know what you’re doing, then you’re just a chance-occurrence in the world. Then you’re just a piece of wood drifting on the river. A piece of wood which has no power to make decisions for itself.

If you don’t know what you’re doing, then you don’t have real power.

Tom wanted to be taken seriously. That’s why he wanted to make money. He had the power to kill in order to make money. It was a beginning. Ultimately he would have to find out what to do with that money, what to do with his LIFE!

Tom looked back at the two horses following him, carrying their gruesome loads.

Ted - who was being carried along like a bag of potatoes - could perhaps have become Tom’s friend. Together they would have been stronger than just one. But neither Ted nor Tom had any proper goal in their life, and their combined strength would have been a sick joke!

Every man Tom killed could possibly have been his friend, but Tom didn’t know what to do with friends. His endless killings were nothing more than an indication of his clumsiness in life – it was a way of drawing attention, of calling for help!

Tom proudly trotted into the town of Earlham. People watched him coming. He led the horses straight to the sheriff.

The sheriff came out of his office and grabbed Ted by the hair to see his face. He raised an eyebrow and nodded. But when he saw Ned’s face he said: “Oh!” with something like awe.

Tom got a thousand dollars for Ned, and a hundred for Ted. He also managed to sell the two horses of the outlaws for hundred apiece. So Ted hadn’t been worth more than the horse on which he had been riding. It’s really the peak of contempt to sell a human being for hundred dollars. There are lots of reasons to kill a human being, but hundred dollars are simply too little. Even outside of philosophical considerations, a human life is definitely worth more than that.

If Ted had worked for Tom, they would have made much more than a measly hundred dollars. You don’t even need to take into consideration the emotional value. Selling a human being for a hundred dollars means willfully overlooking this fact, thus it’s contempt.

Tom left the sheriff’s office and was glad not to have to lead the two other horses behind himself anymore. He was alone with Bess once again.

And he had a thousand and three hundred dollars more in his pockets than before. But the money didn’t mean so much to him. He had earned more with less effort previously. And he was used to earning his money in a more satisfactory way.

Things you do are satisfactory when you do them purposefully, which also means you could do them again, which means they’re not just down to luck.

Tom had defeated Ted. He could do it again anytime (in case Ted was resurrected), simply because he was faster than Ted. But Tom hadn’t defeated Ned, because it was Ted who had shot Ned.

If Ted had defeated Ned in a fair shoot-out, Tom would have felt okay about the whole thing. If Ted had been faster than Ned - and since Tom was yet faster than Ted -, that would automatically have meant that Tom was faster than Ned as well. This is basic logics. So Tom would have felt good about cashing in on Ned’s body.

But Ted had shot Ned while Ned was unarmed. If Ned was to be resurrected, Ted couldn’t have done that again, because Ned wouldn’t have gone into the bushes without his gun anymore. Ted hadn’t defeated Ned in a fair shoot-out, and so, even though Tom had easily defeated Ted, this meant nothing about him deserving to cash in on Ned’s body. Tom didn’t really deserve the victory over Ned.

What did it matter?

Well, it DID matter.

Wanting to win only in a fair way is called chivalrous, isn’t it? And why would anybody want to be chivalrous?

Winning in a fair way means you could repeat the heroic deed anytime. But winning unfairly can only be done once. If Ned was resurrected, he wouldn’t go back into the bushes without his gun anymore. He would be warned. So Ted couldn’t shoot him again. The unfair way Ted had defeated Ned couldn’t be repeated. And since it couldn’t be repeated anyway, it doesn’t command respect either. Bystanders wouldn’t admire Ted for what he had done. They wouldn’t be scared that Ted could do it to them next. They would be warned. The trick only works once. So they are not awed by it.

The victory of the unfair winner doesn’t need to be taken into account so much, because he couldn’t repeat it anyway. Not taking something into account, in other words overlooking something willfully, that’s called contempt.

Contempt is what you feel towards an unfair winner.

Tom had a thousand dollars in his pockets that he had earned in a despicable way, by selling Ned’s body that he hadn’t deserved…

He knew that he would have defeated Ned anyway, but anybody can claim that.

Now he just had to defeat Nacho. Nacho was Ned’s boss, so surely he was faster than Ned. If Tom defeated Nacho fairly, that would mean he would have defeated Ned as well, and then he would truly deserve the thousand dollars he had got for Ned’s body. And then he would be morally entitled to use those thousand dollars as well. For the time being he mustn’t touch them. He mustn’t even throw them away, because that would look as though he despised them. He had no right to despise that money, and he had no right to use it either. It was there in his pocket, dirty money, and there was no other way to get rid of it than to defeat Nacho.

On the other hand, nobody had witnessed the scene around the fire during the coffee-break. Nobody still alive, except Tom himself, knew how Ned had been killed. Nobody could blame Tom for this unfairly earned money.

And yet Tom still had a feeling that some kind of invisible moral power had seen everything. Was it his own conscience?

To pacify this invisible power, Tom had to become the moral owner of these doubtful thousand dollars. He could only do that by defeating Nacho. It was like a secret link to his mission, his mission to defeat Nacho. He had to defeat Nacho to feel worthy. There was no way back anymore.

Tom needed to feel worthy, because in actual fact he just wished to be acknowledged by his fellow human beings and to find his place in the world. Deep down what he aspired to was nothing more than that…

Tom had accomplished great deeds – he had shot some of the greatest outlaws of his time. Unfortunately it didn’t really bring him any closer to fulfilling his dream.

As he rode past the houses, people followed him with their eyes suspiciously.

Tom had become a taciturn gunman. It began to show in his bearing. No feelings for others, no regard for living or dead things, no emotional responsiveness. He just went his way, calmly, and shot whoever had deserved it.

Tom was the archangel who purges mankind with holy thunderbolts, without even getting out of breath. He should have been highly respected. But it wasn’t truly respect that he commanded – it was rather fear that people felt for him. Anyone could suddenly, at a moment’s notice, deserve death at the hands of the archangel, and the archangel’s thunderbolt would slam into him mercilessly.

Perhaps Tom was even worse than Nacho.

Nacho was just an outlaw. An outlaw kills for money. An outlaw is still human, and he still has feelings like greed for money. These feelings make him predictable, perhaps even impressionable. In short they make him human.

But what about Tom? Does he have any feelings?

It’s impossible to tell...

Why does he only shoot outlaws when he could get a lot more money by robbing a bank? He has no reason to spare banks, since he isn’t part of any community. Perhaps money is not the real issue in his case. But then what is?

A sense of justice? Justice for whom? He doesn’t even belong anywhere. So what is he killing the outlaws for?

For revenge? Revenge for what? How can he take revenge on people he doesn’t even know? It’s impossible!

Unless of course he is the vengeful angel of God Himself!

Tom, the quiet, mysterious gunman…

While all he wanted in reality was to be a normal guy, to be part of things in his home-town, to be greeted like an equal by his mates. NOT to be the poorest and most self-righteous small-scale sheep-farmer despised by everybody and despising everybody in return!

Was that so damn hard? How had this made him into the vengeful angel of God? It was crazy!

If cruel Nacho was a lost soul, maybe Tom was even more lost than that!

It’s paradoxical that evil is adorned with feelings while goodness is so detached from humanity that it is feelingless and cold!

It’s probably due to evil being tangible while goodness is just a bit of foam crowning the swell of evil. Tom had become the representative of this foam crown!

Tom rode through town, not quite sure what to do next.

In a few hours Nacho would attack the bank in Anthony. And then he would realize that Tom was a traitor because Anthony would still be fully manned since nobody would have attacked the bank in Earlham to draw away a posse from Anthony.

Unless, of course, Tom attacked the bank here in Earlham right now.

If Tom robbed the bank here, Anthony would be warned by telegraph. This gave Tom an idea. He would just find the telegraph office and send a telegram himself. No need to attack the bank for real! Anthony would send out its men to help, and they would only realize that they had been cheated upon their arrival here in Earlham! After that they would ride back to Anthony in a hurry, no doubt, but they still wouldn’t be back soon enough to stop Nacho and his men, and Nacho wouldn’t guess that no attack had taken place in Earlham at all. Tom would meet up with him and his gang again, and he would have a sad story ready about how Ned and Ted got killed in the attack.

Okay, this would mean facilitating the bank robbery for Nacho and his men in Anthony. On the other hand, a big massacre would also be avoided that way.

So Tom rode through town till he saw the shield saying “telegraph office”. He led Bess to the front of the house, got off, tied her up and entered the office like any ordinary customer. A smell of frying eggs wafted towards him.

The telegrapher was standing in front of the stove preparing fried eggs. As Tom came in he turned around.

He was a small man, well past the middle of his life. His sparse hair was graying. He was wearing the typical kind of sun-shade above his eyes which seems to be the badge of trustworthiness for state officials. The skin of his face was deeply furrowed and colourless. But there was still a sparkle of life in his clear eyes. His nose was small and dainty, with small holes into which no finger would fit, Tom felt sure about that.

When the man spoke, Tom had the feeling the dainty nose must be a bit congested. The rosy lips were moist, and the little mouth sprayed small droplets of spittle around as he spoke.

“Good day, sir, can I do something for you?”

Tom didn’t answer at first. He looked around in the room.

In a corner in the back stood a wooden rocking-chair, next to it a small table with a cup of coffee. In the middle of the room the stove stood with the pan on the fire and the eggs in it. Next to it a few spoons were lying around, and a battered coffee-pot that wasn’t in use right now.

Tom had a vision: he saw himself stretched out in the rocking-chair, the coffee-pot on the fire, and straw-bales blowing past outside the window. Then it started to rain. Big, warm drops splattered on the empty, dusty street which soon turned into a torrent. Tom lolled about in the rocking-chair and was glad to have a roof above his head. He heard the rain-drops drumming on it. The coffee-pot started whistling…

The vision passed. Unfortunately reality was quite different. When it rained, Tom was mostly somewhere in the prairie, and there was nothing else to do but to cower under his coat and wait for it to pass.

Sometimes he burned under the merciless sun, sometimes he shivered in his wet clothes when the rain hadn’t stopped before nightfall…

It was seldom enough that Tom had the chance to rest in a room, and he never felt completely safe in a room, in a town, among people.

The small-scale official here in this office led a totally different life, even though he and Tom were both human and surely had the same basic needs. Tom sometimes yearned for this kind of quiet life. But didn’t it ever get too boring?

Surely not! This man experienced other things that were exciting in another way. One day he had probably fallen in love and had had to fight for the one his heart had chosen. By and by he had evoked the favours of his loved one. The tenderness of the first kiss, the excitement of the first night, the birth of the first child…

All these are quite ordinary things. But Tom’s brilliant shoot-outs, were they in any way less ordinary?

This evening the rosy little mouth would kiss a woman, and the sparkling eyes would appraise the little handicrafts of the enthusiastic grandchildren.

Tom, on the other hand, would be on his way somewhere with his horse, seeking out an outlaw worth ten thousand dollars.

Right here and now Tom stood above this small-scale state official. Tom was stronger. The reason for this was mainly that Tom had burst into a peaceful world that he could destroy. The threat wasn’t mutual, because Tom had no world of his own that anyone could come and destroy…

“Can I do something for you, sir?” the official asked once again.

Tom said: “Nacho and his gang have robbed the bank. You should warn all the other towns around here.”

“But sir, I didn’t hear any shots!”

“Wanna hear some?” asked Tom and held his revolver under the nose of the man and pulled back the hammer.

“B…but…?”

„Just do what I say,“ said Tom and pushed the man down on a stool.

The equipment stood on a desk in the other corner of the room. Tom pushed the stool towards it.

There was a big box with wires coming out. Two wires went to a little device on which you could press with your finger, making contact, letting through the electrical current, pushing electrical charge to another, similar office far away, making a buzzer sound there.

After a little more encouragement the official got down to work: he put his middle finger on the small device and tapped the message.

The finger on the device almost had a life of its own. The steady tapping impressed Tom. He wouldn’t have expected this dexterity from the little old man.

Tom didn’t know the Morse-alphabet, but the man couldn’t know that, so Tom trusted him to tap the right message. After a few moments he stopped tapping and looked up at Tom.

Tom pulled the stool away from the desk and tied the man to it. He also tied up his mouth with a kerchief. Then he went to the box on the desk and pulled out the wires. He had a last look around, took the pan with the eggs off the fire and put it on the table to cool. Then he walked out of the office like an ordinary customer.

Bess was waiting outside. Tom gave her a piece of bread and mounted. He rode out of town without haste.

He rode off in the direction of Anthony. He was aware of his crime – he had overpowered a state official on duty, and he had just facilitated a bank robbery for the worst outlaw of the country. But it was the only way to stay in touch with the gang.

 

Tom was on his way to Anthony. He was alone with Bess, just like on the day of his escape from home. It was evening like it had been then. The sky embellished itself with deep, passionate colours.

Two fat clouds were coloured a deep red by the sun, like two swollen lips. The sky behind was of the deepest blue. The two lone clouds drifted apart, and Tom had a feeling the lips were parting to receive him.

Tom breathed in deeply to prepare himself for the heavenly kiss.

Unfortunately Tom didn’t really feel relaxed tonight – he was on a mission. He was riding to Anthony to meet an outlaw, not to get lost beyond the horizon. He wasn’t free, and whoever isn’t free can’t expect to kiss the sky. This sudden realization made him melancholic.

How had it been on the day of his departure from home? Had he felt free then?

Surely not. At that time he had been fleeing into the unknown.

Freedom means personal choices. You cannot make choices in the unknown, because you don’t know what there is to choose. You have to take things as they come.

Today Tom was much freer than he had been then, because today he had money, lots of it. Enough to live for many years.

Even before getting to know Jim, and before meeting Nacho, he had had money. But he hadn’t had a mission yet.

He had been free, free to let his horse carry him into the setting sun for ever.

But he had lacked this kind of passionate revival that he was yearning for today. Today it looked as though his mission was hindering him from keeping his appointment with the heavenly kiss. But yesterday he had lacked a signpost telling him where to go.

Every evening Tom could see the last rays of sunlight on the horizon, and yet he still never caught up with the sun. Of course the sun came back every morning, but Tom wouldn’t live for ever, after all. One day the sun would rise without Tom being there to see Her anymore…, unless he had somehow managed to catch up with Her by then.

Maybe one needs a mission to be happy. A mission that somehow entails catching up with the sun.

Any task you undertake restricts your freedom. But what we’re yearning for isn’t just freedom as such. We want our freedom so that we may be free to reach out for the sun before She sinks for ever. Once we have found a mission taking us closer to the sun, we don’t need freedom anymore – we just need the mission.

Tom had taken on a mission because he felt lost. Now he wondered if it was the right mission. If not, it would just be an obstacle to his true yearning. But if it was the right mission, then he wouldn’t need any freedom anymore, except for the freedom to accomplish that mission.

And yet, what Tom really wanted was such an ordinary thing – to be someone. This included eventually raising a family. One day the sun would shine on his grave and he wouldn’t see Her anymore, but lots of little Toms would go on seeing Her in his place. No morning would ever appear without some descendant of his seeing the sun – Tom would have dissolved in the heavenly kiss.

If that was the true goal, if that was what he needed his freedom for, if that was supposed to be his mission, then what on Earth was he chasing after an outlaw named Nacho for?

Tom was still watching the sky as it was losing its reddishness. Even if Tom hadn’t had a mission today, supper still wouldn’t have waited for him. Tom felt melancholic. Even without his crazy mission he would still have felt melancholic. It was that kind of melancholic evening, that’s all there was to it.

At least, thanks to his mission, he wasn’t lost in the void – he had this self-appointed task to fulfill before he could even think of doing anything else. This fact was almost a consolation, because, as long as you can feel yourself moving forwards, there is hope. You cannot know what’s coming next. It’s only once you’ve come to a standstill that hope gets lost.

So Tom looked upon his mission as an intermediate goal, and within this framework he moved forwards with fresh hope.

It was still dusk when Tom saw a group of about twenty riders on the horizon.

Of course, it was the reinforcement from Anthony. They were coming to Earlham because of the telegraphic message!

Tom hoped they wouldn’t search him, because he carried a lot of money. They could mistake him for one of the fleeing robbers!

Tom made Bess slow down. The riders approached at great speed.

As Bess saw the other horses come towards her at a gallop, she changed from trotting to walking and finally stopped.

The leader of the group of riders, a tall, gaunt man with a well-combed, silver-grey moustache, spurred his horse on till the last. It was a splendid white horse that had evidently been masterfully trained. Its every slightest move was dictated by its rider.

Tom thought to himself that in actual fact this wasn’t true obedience. The horse was being steered through its reflexes, like a machine. This wasn’t a horse to be trusted with making decisions. Not like Bess.

True obedience also entails some insight. One has to understand what the master wants, and then one tries to reach this goal in the best possible way.

But this horse had no insight – it just obeyed its rider because he didn’t leave it any time to have ideas of its own. Besides, it probably didn’t even matter to this horse who the rider was, and if it ever lost him, it definitely wouldn’t go looking for him. Without its rider this horse was just a horse, well-trained though it may be.

Bess was different. Tom could ride Bess even if he were blind, deaf and paralyzed, because Bess would take care of him. Bess was more than just a horse – she was a friend.

In any case that’s definitely what Tom liked to think.

The rider of the white horse spurred the horse on for one more stride and then pulled it to a sudden stop right in front of Tom.

The gaunt man asked Tom: “Did you see or hear anything?”

“Like what?” asked Tom harmlessly.

“The bank in Earlham was robbed.”

“I must have left town before that. I didn’t know…” said Tom.

“Will you join us?” asked the man.

“No, I have an appointment in Anthony.”

The gaunt man looked at Tom contemptfully with colourless eyes, spurred his horse and disappeared at a full gallop, just as he had come. His twenty followers started off behind him once again, though not as elegantly as he just had.

Tom turned his head and looked after them for a moment. They obviously hadn’t seen through him. They were looking for Nacho and his gang, and Tom seemed too insignificant for wasting time on.

The leader hadn’t even had time to halt progressively. He had stopped his horse in the midst of a canter and blasted off again at a full gallop without a single step of walk or trot. It had been masterfully done. A well-trained horse indeed!

Well, Tom hadn’t joined the posse, and he was glad to have nothing to do with such people as those!

He said: “Okay Bess, let’s go on.” Bess obediently set herself in motion.

When Tom arrived in Anthony, it was night and the half-moon hung in the sky with a silvery glow. Tom got off Bess and walked next to her. He led her to the hotel that they had left early in the morning.

When he had brushed and fed Bess, he quickly went up to Jim’s room and knocked.

“Who’s there?”

“Tom.”

“Are you alone?”

“Yes.”

“Come in.”

Up till now Jim’s voice had been dry, but when Tom had opened the door, Jim asked excitedly: “How was it? What did you do?”

“The gang took me on. The robbery takes place tonight.”

“Then what are you doing here? I thought you would attack the gang from the inside. But now you’re obviously not with them.”

“I was sent to Earlham to attack the bank there as a diversion.”

“YOU attacked the bank in Earlham?”

“I just sent a false telegram.”

“But what are we to do now? The two of us alone cannot confront Nacho’s whole gang!”

“Why couldn’t we? We shoot from up here with the long guns. There are fourteen of them. If we are cold-blooded enough, each of us can shoot down seven of them before they can save themselves.”

“How could we possibly do that?”

“They will stand on the moonlit street while we lurk up here in our dark rooms.”

Jim was only half convinced, but he was ready to try.

Tom went into his own room to get ready. He shoved the bed to the window and with pillows and covers he built some kind of embankment reaching till the window-sill. He lied down and boxed the embankment into shape till it felt comfortable enough.

Then he shouldered the long gun and looked out of the open window down into the street. The position was strategically just right for a sniper, and Tom felt proud of himself.

He stood up once more and went into the room next door to give some advice to Jim about setting himself up in a similar way.

When he came back he lied down with his gun, intending not to move until he saw Nacho’s men.

Time seemed long. The big bank lied still on the other side of the street. The masonry shimmered whitely in the cold moon-light.

The watchful guards appeared at the corner, walked along the building till the other corner and disappeared again. Probably for the fortieth time, which means Tom had been waiting for more than twenty minutes already.

If Nacho didn’t hurry, the posse that went to Earlham would be back! Every few seconds Tom peered along the empty street into the distance and then quickly fastened his eyes onto the bank again, which was just lying there like a ship on a windless sea.

But now Tom had seen something at the other end of the street.

He strained his eyes – there were four riders. The horses came along with measured steps. Broad figures were squatting on the horses, wearing their hats even at night. They had already come a good deal closer when Tom could be sure at last that they were really four of Nacho’s men. Tom had seen them in the old church. One of them in particular Tom remembered well because he was a stout hunchback and his silhouette was unmistakable.

The four men parked their horses in front of the hotel, right under Tom’s window. They sneaked towards the bank on foot.

The bank stood somewhat apart from the other buildings – an empty, moonlit expanse separated the last wooden house from the bank made of stones and bricks and mortar.

The guards were just disappearing behind the far-off corner when two of Nacho’s men ran over to the closer corner where the guards would reappear in about twenty seconds.

And so the four men waited, two of them at the corner where the guards would reappear and the other two in the shadow of the last house of the row of houses across the street from Tom.

Tom watched, feeling tense. In front of his eyes a series of events was unfolding in which he wasn’t involved (yet). If Tom decided to be content with just watching without intervening, he would witness the whole thing, and nobody would ever know. Nobody would ever hold it against him that he hadn’t intervened (but what about Jim? – he had completely forgotten about him!).

Watching from this first-class seat, Tom might even get a chance to analyze and grasp Nacho’s genius! Tom felt strangely detached from what was going to happen down there. The scene of the bank-robbery fascinated him, but he felt just fine as a spectator, comfortably embedded in his cozy hotel room. He had quite forgotten that he was breathing the same air as the four bad men down there.

But then Tom was suddenly torn out of his meditative mood and drawn right into the harshness of the adventure in front of his window as a shot rang out all close to him. And he saw one of the men at the corner of the bank twitch with his whole body and then fall from the darkness into the moonlit street.

The other man from the corner of the bank stepped forward, raised his revolver out of his holster with lightening speed and fired a few shots in Tom’s general direction, or rather in the direction from which the rifle shot had come from. The man must have seen the flash from Jim’s rifle and was aiming at it (because it had of course been Jim who had fired the first shot). Since Jim didn’t shoot back, Tom had to assume he had been hit.

Tom shouldered his gun and aimed at Jim’s murderer who was standing at the corner of the bank. But he didn’t shoot straight away. He didn’t want to give himself away to the other men who were still lurking in the shadow of the last house from the row of wooden houses. He didn’t want to make the same deadly mistake as Jim. He knew that the flash from his rifle would be enough for Nacho’s men to target and hit him.

Since nothing more was happening the men assumed that the danger from the hotel had been successfully dealt with. They had to concentrate on something else anyway, because the guards came running around the corner – they had heard the shots too!

The two men who had been waiting in the shadow of the house jumped out into the moonlight while Tom pulled the trigger. As his first victim was staggering at the corner of the bank he turned his gun towards the two men who had just jumped out of the shadows – and who were turning towards him now - and shot once more and yet once more.

All three men fell dead.

Only the guards who had come around the corner of the bank were still standing, and since they hadn’t understood what had happened, they shot in the direction of the hotel where Tom’s shots had come from. But Tom had nothing to fear from them – their bullets went wide off the mark.

Tom was already wondering whether this was the end of the story when a mighty explosion taught him otherwise. For a split second the sky behind the bank lit up as in broad daylight.

The guards stood there like dummies that had taken root.

Tom felt as if he was glued to his bed, his eyes staring wide.

Several men seemed to be busying themselves at the back of the bank – one could hear them call out to each other. Then there was the sound of horses galloping away and then silence. The bank robbery had succeeded!

Tom was dismayed! It had never occurred to him that the bank could be robbed from BEHIND! Four of Nacho’s men were dead, but the ten others had undoubtedly disappeared with the safe!

Tom pushed his bed back into its usual place and got ready for a nap before morning. The next day he would meet Nacho’s gang as had been agreed. Till then he wanted to sleep a bit.

Only now did he think of Jim. He went over to Jim’s room.

Jim was lying on his bed facing the window with the gun in front of him. Tom came closer. Jim wasn’t moving. Tom bent down over him to see his face. Jim’s eyes were staring at the corner of the bank where his victim had stood. Jim had been petrified in the midst of action.

Tom saw the dark hole on his forehead.

Tom remembered that one normally shuts the eyes of a deceased person and smoothes the lines in his face. Then he has to be laid out as though he were peacefully sleeping.

But Tom didn’t feel like performing this ultimate duty on his friend’s body. Not yet anyway. As Jim was lying there right now he just seemed frozen solid, not dead.

Tom would be able to accept Jim’s death and come to terms with it once he had killed Nacho and his whole gang.

For the time being he didn’t even feel the slightest premonition of sorrow yet. On the contrary, he almost felt relieved. Jim had been a good comrade, but Tom had to finish the job on his own. He needed to do this alone, alone with Bess.

Tom went back to his room, lied down in bed and even managed to sleep.

 

When Tom woke up the next morning, the sun was already shining with all its might through the yellowish curtains in front of the window from which Tom had lived through a whole adventure last night.

Tom stood up slowly, sat on the edge of the bed for a while to give his blood time to rise up to his head, then stood up for good and went over to the window.

He pulled the curtains to the side and looked down into the street. Here and there a rider was trotting by, a group of cowboys was strolling to the saloon and a hay wagon was leisurely being drawn along the street – it all seemed unhurried and normal. The bank was standing there on the other side of the street as always. What Tom had been part of at night belonged to another world that didn’t fit into the usual way of life of this one. And yet it had all happened right here, and surely there were traces of the alien staging production to be found all over the place – the four dead bodies were surely lying on some boards on top of trestles in the shop of the undertaker somewhere, and the bank must have a great big hole at the back, and of course the money was gone!

But nobody seemed to care. None of this seemed to bother the inhabitants of Anthony all that much. They were events from another world, and although they were strangely bound to this one, they still didn’t touch any of the inhabitants personally. Perhaps they didn’t keep their money in the bank anyway, or only the very rich ones did. So they weren’t concerned.

Tom moved away from the window and got dressed. He slipped into his richly decorated boots and buckled his belt with the holster hanging from it. Then he felt ready for the new day.

He left his room and briskly walked to the stairs, but as he passed Jim’s door he slowed down, sighed imperceptibly and sped up again. He ate a quick breakfast in the dinning room, paid for his room for the next few days in advance and went on to the stable. He gave the stable-boy a big tip so that he would take good care of the gelding and of Jim’s mule. Then he saddled Bess, led her out of the stable and mounted her. As always when he got ready to be on his way, he felt a tingle of excitement in his belly. A bit of fear was there too, of course. Bess set herself in motion, and Tom left the town in which he had lost his friend Jim.

After an hour-long ride through the heat, he reached the old lonesome church. As soon as he was within reach he pulled his gun and shot at the big bell. The aggressive bark of his revolver made a strange contrast to the sad clang of the old bell which reminded Tom of good old times in his home-town.

The big door at the front of the church opened up, and The Boy appeared in the entrance. Tom dismounted and led Bess into the church. As his eyes got used to the dimness, he tied Bess to the trough and loosened her saddle-belt. The Boy stood next to him, waiting. When he had finished with Bess, Tom followed The Boy who led him through the church to Nacho.

Nacho was sitting in a corner, his legs spread out in front of him, smoking a cigar. He held the cigar between his ring finger and his pinkie, and when he brought it to his lips his hand almost covered his whole face.

The rest of the gang was nearby, crouching or sitting around their boss.

“Well,” said Nacho, “where are the other two?”

“Dead.”

Nacho took a long draw on his cigar, and when he finally pulled it away from his mouth his fingers caressed his face as though they were reluctant to leave it.

“Dead?” he repeated without showing much surprise, and the smoke poured out of his mouth.

Then his eyes lifted to stare straight at Tom. A warning glowered in them. It was the kind of look you wouldn’t ever forget.

“Nobody followed you?” he asked.

“No,” answered Tom with conviction.

“Okay, then let’s go,” said Nacho and stood up. All the others immediately followed suit.

A hay wagon was waiting outside behind the church. Two big horses were harnessed to it. A big safe was lying on it, looking incongruous there, a big box of iron. Two of Nacho’s men jumped into the seat and set the vehicle in motion. Tom and the other eight men escorted the wagon on horseback.

The wagon left deep tracks behind. The tracks led all the way from Anthony to the ruined church. The twenty men of the posse that had ridden to Earlham were now back in Anthony looking at the hole in the bank. They saw the wooden ramp that Nacho’s men had left behind. The ramp led from the hole in the wall over the platform to where the deep tracks began in the sand. The safe had been dragged over the ramp right onto the hay wagon.

They got fresh horses, and now all they needed to do was follow the tracks. They had to lead to Nacho and his gang and the stolen safe sooner or later.

Nacho’s gang had no idea that they were already being followed. They were leisurely riding towards a small Mexican village where they intended to hole up for a while till the bank-robbery would be less fresh on everybody’s mind. They weren’t very fast with the hay wagon and its heavy load. But they didn’t expect the posse to be back from Earlham yet, and they counted on the wind to eventually wipe out the tracks.

Nacho had personally destroyed the telegraph wires before he and his gang had arrived in Anthony, so that nobody could warn Earlham about what was happening in Anthony. He couldn’t guess that the posse would find out that there had been foul-play as soon as they arrived in Earlham where the bank had never even been robbed at all!

It all started with the two last members of the troop somehow feeling they weren’t the last. When they looked back, they really seemed to see a cloud of dust in the distance. They told the men in front of them, and soon the rumour reached Nacho’s ears: we’re being followed!

First Nacho got angry with his men for spreading such a rumour. It occurred to Tom that he might be a bit superstitious, believing that such rumours attract bad luck – just a moment ago they had all been riding along happily and Nacho had been delighting himself with the thought of having robbed the bank in Anthony, while now they were all agitated and nervous, just because two idiots believed they had seen a damn dust cloud.

But the dust-cloud became more and more distinct, and Nacho’s anger gradually directed itself against Tom.

Tom had claimed that nobody had followed him. But the pursuers must have picked up his trail in Earlham, since there wasn’t anybody left in Anthony who could compete with his gang, Nacho was sure of that.

But now wasn’t the time to work on Tom – even if he was guilty all by himself, it was still a fact that they were ALL being followed now. Nacho urged them on, but even so, the pursuers kept coming closer. Unlike Nacho’s gang they weren’t slowed down by a heavy cart – they only had their guns with them!

The way they were going became rougher and rougher. It was no problem for the horses, but it was getting harder and harder to pull along the wagon.

Now the way winded through a group of rock-formations. This was an ideal place for an ambush. The driver of the cart wanted to park it behind a big outcropping of rocks, but Nacho suddenly stopped him: “Leave the wagon with its load out in the open!”

The man obeyed, not quite managing to hide his surprise. Nacho made him pull the wagon back part of the way and started piling up the remaining dynamite under it. He explained his idea: “Our pursuers will think we abandoned the loot. As soon as they assemble around it to check if the safe is still whole, I’ll shoot on the dynamite. The explosion will kill some of them, and we’ll shoot down the others from behind these rocks in the general mayhem that will follow the explosion.”

Some dummy asked if the safe couldn’t be damaged by the explosion. Nacho didn’t take the time to make a show of child-like expressions disguising his sadism but just answered frankly for once: “The worst that can happen to the safe is that it will open up.”

So Nacho and his men left behind their loot as bait and hid behind the rock-formations.

They saw how the silhouettes of riders gradually materialized out of the dust-cloud. After a while that was rather shorter than expected the pursuers were standing there in front of them as living beings of flesh and blood. But they were distrustful of the bait. They just sat on their horses, at a safe distance, and waited to see if something would happen.

The minutes that passed now seemed very slow.

The boss of the pursuers, the man with the moustaches whom Tom had already met, finally reached a decision: he sent one of his men forward to the abandoned cart.

The man who had been sent was forced to go if he didn’t want to be accused of cowardice. But he wondered, quite legitimately, if it could really be called cowardice to avoid a hidden enemy. If the enemy was hidden nearby, the man would just be shot without having had a chance to defend himself. And if the enemy wasn’t around, nothing at all would happen, and his deed wouldn’t even be considered heroic. It was a game in which you could lose (your life), but you couldn’t win…

The man wasn’t thinking of death too much. He was still very young. He just thought of the injustice of having been chosen for this invidious mission for no other reason than because he was the most inexperienced member of the posse.

The young man spurred his horse. It wouldn’t go. It advanced a few hesitant steps and stood still again. The man dug his heels into the horse’s belly. The horse unwillingly advanced some more. The man spurred it ruthlessly. He hid his own indecision behind the ruthlessness towards his horse. The poor animal could feel the indecision and fear of its rider very well, and that’s why it was so unwilling. It also felt the spurs – two contradicting messages. It wondered once again, as it often did, about the inconsistency of human beings.

After several laborious seconds the rider and his horse arrived at the abandoned cart at last. The man got off his horse and clambered onto the wagon. There was no movement anywhere, but the man hardly dared to breathe.

He checked out the safe which seemed completely intact. He could hardly believe it – in this safe, directly beneath his hands, almost a million dollars were waiting!

The team of horses harnessed to the wagon were unsuspectingly chasing away flies with their tails. The man climbed into the seat and took the reins. Now all he needed to do was to steer the wagon away from these sinister rock-formations, and his task would be completed and he would be safe!

He lifted the reins and called out: “Yaaah!”

And that’s when Nacho pulled the trigger. The bullet went into the midst of the pile of dynamite concealed under the wagon. The brunt of the explosion lifted the wagon up into the air. The horses bolted off, dragging the man by the reins. The remains of the wagon flew around like angry wasps and the safe fell back down with a dull thud, quite intact, into the sand.

The two horses of the team were still galloping away, dragging the young man behind them. The other horse with which the man had come was lying dead on the ground.

Before the dust had time to settle, the shooting from the rock-formations started. The pursuers were escaping to all sides, but Nacho’s men shot them off their horses. It was easy – their horses had all gone wild and so they couldn’t shoot back. They fell like rotten apples.

The man with the grey moustaches had managed to calm his horse, dismounted and stood behind it. He tried to assemble his men around him. With some difficulty he finally managed to get ten men to position themselves behind their horses in front of the evil rock-formations.

Nacho’s men now unscrupulously started shooting down the horses. Apart from one horse that bolted off and exposed the man behind it who promptly got shot, this wasn’t so easy at all, because the horses could bear several shots before sinking to the ground, and the men standing behind them were smart enough to make them turn their heads away from the rock-formations where the shots came from.

Furthermore the pursuers were now shooting back. One of Nacho’s men lost his index and screamed his head off.

Several of the pursuers were now lying behind their dead horses, but they were tenaciously defending their positions. The battle wasn’t evolving much anymore, and Nacho was afraid that one of the pursuers would escape to get reinforcements while the others would stay put and stop Nacho’s gang from moving on.

Nacho didn’t like this whole situation. He would much rather have finished off all the pursuers with the explosion rather than having to shoot them one by one. Why oh why were people so suspicious nowadays that they wouldn’t even approach an obviously abandoned cart?

Nacho worked his way over to Tom who had hardly fired any bullets yet.

“Get yourself a horse and ride out towards the enemy!”

“What??” Tom called out startled, but Nacho didn’t repeat his order. Three men came and lifted him up on a horse, and the horse was driven out from among the rock-formations. He heard a heartening voice calling out behind him: “Go! We’re covering you!”

The horse galloped towards the pursuers in suicidal fear. Tom felt uncomfortable on this alien horse – the stirrups were far too long for him and he was losing the reins which weren’t tied together in the middle. He was badly shaken. He held on to the neck of the horse. The poor horse must have felt that a bob-cat was clinging to its neck.

The desperate mood of the horse had gotten totally out of control and Tom lost all power over his mount.

He felt he was slipping out of the saddle.

He didn’t hear the shots anymore. He only heard the thrumming of the hooves. He saw the ground swishing past under him, and he saw the hooves flying over sand and stones.

Now he saw an angular structure in the corner of his eye. It was coming closer– of course, it was the safe lying in the middle of the battle-field!

He felt how the body of the horse slipped away from him for good and he fell to the ground heavily. He rolled over on the ground once or twice and came to rest against some kind of wall with a thud. When he opened his eyes he saw that he was lying behind the big safe. He quickly pulled in his legs so that they would be protected too.

Now he lifted up his head and risked a quick peak over the edge of the safe. His half-crazy horse had been caught by the pursuers. Tom saw the unprotected legs of the men standing behind it. Some other horses were still on their feet too, and the legs of the men standing behind them were just as unprotected. Tom’s current position was actually very good for a sniper – since he was close to the ground while Nacho’s men were higher up among the rocks, as well as being much further away, he really represented an additional threat to the pursuers!

Whenever the shooting from Nacho’s side got the most intensive, Tom quickly lifted his head and his revolver over the edge of the safe and fired a few shots at the legs of the pursuers whose position was now getting untenable.

Tom didn’t get properly aware of what he was actually doing here – helping the gang! All he was thinking of was how to get rid of those pursuers.

All of a sudden the following happened: the man with the grey moustaches called out “Chaaaarge!” and jumped on his horse. The others – those who were still able to - followed his example. In a narrow formation they came galloping, heading towards the path through the rock-formations. First it seemed they were going to overrun the safe and Tom. The first horse made a small sideways jump to avoid it. Tom quickly stood up and shot the rider. All he saw of him was a gaping mouth and two staring eyes.

The next two horses galloped past the safe on either side. Tom shot down the two riders, twisted his body like a snake and jumped up at the horses, catching a saddle-knob with each hand. He was now half hanging, half stuck between the bodies of the two galloping horses. Other horses were galloping all around them, but their riders were too busy shooting at the rock-formations to have time to aim at Tom (who didn’t represent an immediate threat at this very moment anyway).

Stuck between the two horses, Tom was carried through the narrow passage between the rock-formations. Bullets were whizzing past, but he was well protected between the bodies of the two horses.

A few seconds later he was on the other side of the rock-formations. The shooting had quieted down. Exhausted, his cramped hands finally let go of the saddle-knobs. He fell on the coarse, sandy ground and the two horses galloped past him.

There was sand in his mouth and his face was covered with sores and wounds. He felt so sick that he was going to vomit. But Nacho’s men were already running towards him.

“Bravo!” they cried out. „That was great!“

They lifted him onto his feet and held him up. They brought him to a horse and helped him mount. It wasn’t Bess, but he was too weak to ask for Bess. For a while he fell into a kind of dreamy senselessness.

When he got back to his senses somewhat, he saw that all of Nacho’s men were sitting on horses. Not a single one had died. The pursuers, however, were lying all over the place, and their horses were scattered in the landscape.

Nacho’s men had rounded up the two big heavy horses that had pulled the wagon with the safe. They stood side by side and the safe was now secured across their backs. The arrangement didn’t look very stable, but it was the best that could be done under the circumstances.

The troop got on its way. Nacho in person was leading the big horses carrying the safe.

Tom saw that Bess was being ridden by a small man with a black beard and dark, shifting, dishonest eyes. Bess was chewing on her mouth-piece. The man pulled on the reins with a jerk and simultaneously pushed his heels into her belly. Bess stopped chewing, lifted her head fearfully and sprang forwards. She contorted her eyes so that Tom could see the whites in them. She was nervous and fearful, but she didn’t throw off her rider – she was under his control.

Tom was upset that his faithful Bess would just let herself be submitted so easily.

But he himself was sitting on a stranger too. A stranger whose unprejudiced indifference towards its rider seemed almost friendly. This horse wasn’t in the least bad-willed towards him, and all he needed to do was to let himself be carried along…

There was no need for Tom to be irritated by Bess’ lack of faithfulness – after all, he was just as unfaithful, sitting on someone else’s horse.

 

In the evening Nacho and his gang arrived in the small Mexican village. On the way there Tom had admired the multicoloured, well-tended fields. This was the land of simple farmers. Stocky, brown people in white clothes and large-rimmed sun-hats.

Nacho led his men through the middle of the village. He seemed to know where he was going. Squat, white buildings of stone with small holes as windows. All the shutters were being closed loudly as they passed. The street was empty. The only movement to be seen anywhere were the thin plumes of smoke rising from some of the flat roofs. Under these white cubes that were lying around everywhere, forming a village, there was obviously some kind of humble life going on.

A cat on heat, meowing in that typical plaintive and demanding way, suddenly ran across the street in front of the horses – it was the first creature here in this village which obviously didn’t mind being seen by Nacho and his men. The poor animal was plagued by it sexual instinct – else it wouldn’t have let itself be seen either.

Nacho led his men to a “taberna”. At first Tom didn’t realize that it was some kind of restaurant, because it was a square white house like all the others. But all the men dismounted from their horses and walked through the open door, and so Tom followed them.

Inside there was a long table with many chairs and a kind of bar. The men went to the bar first for a drink, then they sat at the table to eat. The host, a small fat man with scared eyes, didn’t speak. He just served the food. When the men had eaten enough, they left the “taberna” in a rather boisterous mood.

Some of them had got rather drunk and were hiccupping loudly. They had lost the sinister dignity they otherwise had, and Tom lost the last of his doubts that he could finish them off, every single one of them.

Except maybe for Nacho. He had drunk a bit too much too, but the effect was different on him. His eyes protruded, the pupils dilated, and his mouth opened a slit. His tongue stuck out a bit in a not very conscious way and lecherously moistened his lips. Tom felt he saw some unfathomable depth of horror in those eyes. The state of intoxication showed more of this man than was visible otherwise, and it was just more of the same, more horror, more danger…

Alcohol reveals hidden feelings. In Nacho’s men it was just coarse humour tainted with undifferentiated sexual lust that rose to the surface. But in Nacho himself it was a new kind of threat that started dangerously glistening in his swollen eyes behind half-shut lids.

As always, Nacho demanded absolute obedience. He sat on his horse, which meant for everybody that they had to mount too. Tom tried to get to Bess, but the other man who had been riding her was there first. Tom quickly had to mount the horse he had been riding earlier, because Nacho wouldn’t tolerate any delays.

Nacho’s gang left the village now and went off to squat in a farm-house nearby. As the men brought their horses into the stables, Nacho knocked at the door of the main part of the building.

The door opened and a scared farmer with a long gun in his arms appeared in the entrance. Nacho brushed the gun aside and entered the house. His men who had finished providing for their horses flowed into the house after him. They made themselves comfortable in the living area and totally ignored the farmer and his wife – the two of them had no chance against ten revolver-toting, tough men, and they knew it.

The Boy and a few others brought the safe into the room. The rest of the evening Nacho and his men spent working out how to break it open. They were all crowded around it, and as some of them were hammering and heaving, others were giving good advice. Tom was happy just to watch.

After several hours they gave up even though the safe didn’t appear to have suffered much damage yet. In the end they would still need to dynamite it. The problem was that the explosion might destroy a good part of the bank-notes too.

A fire was kindled in the fire-place and the men threw on wood generously. Tom thought of the farmer who had felled the trees, cut up all that wood and carried it home.

The men laid down to sleep. Tom settled in a corner too. Under himself he felt his saddle with the side-bag full of dollars. His own saddle from Bess’ back. He had gotten it back. He felt wonderfully at ease. He was snuggling up into his own intimacy. He experienced himself, his own bodily smell and touching the skin of his forearm with his lips in an almost passionate way. He wondered why that was so.

Is one happier in danger than in familiar surroundings? Why is it that you get alienated from yourself in the all too familiar surroundings? Why do you need danger to feel and enjoy your own existence once again?

Tom just had to start philosophizing a bit.

Familiar surroundings also mean static surroundings, because things can only be familiar if we already know them, which means they were there before, hence static.

When the static surroundings provide all we need, then we are happy. But when they don’t, while at the same time keeping us imprisoned, then we end up losing our will to live. Since static surroundings by definition don’t change, we have no hope of ever becoming happy.

But it’s different when you live in uncertainty. Even if nothing especially positive has happened yet, you still always have hope, since uncertainty precisely means that nothing is certain which also means that everything is possible.

Uncertainty is very dynamic. You experience yourself with a whole new feeling. A feeling almost like being in love, because it’s so full of youthful hope!

Maybe Tom would die, but maybe he would appear triumphantly in Anthony with Nacho’s corpse and the undamaged safe! In this adventure everything was possible.

With the reward-money Tom would buy himself a nice ranch, then find a wife and start raising a family. And he would provide for his children. He would give them all those things his own parents had failed to give him. He would have a peaceful life, but this time peace wouldn’t mean despair, because it would be a happy peace!

The danger-zone in which Tom was now was a bridge to a new life, and that’s why he paradoxically felt so hopeful in it.

Tom forgot his sweet feeling of self-love for a second, because he saw something truly astonishing.

Nacho was slumbering in front of the fire with half-closed eye-lids. In the lower corner of his mouth a cigarette was still dangling, but it had long gone out. The Boy, that huge, bell-shaped giant, in whose beer-mug Tom had once spat, went over to Nacho, bent down over him and looked at him. Something like a smile went over his hard, scarred face. The Boy pulled the cigarette out from between Nacho’s limp lips and covered him with a coat.

Like a mother!

Even a morose being like The Boy was obviously capable of some kind of solicitousness when he wasn’t aware of being watched. Or was it actually some kind of …love?

Unbelievable!

Maybe Tom should study the social life of these outlaws rather than just shooting them all down and selling their hides…

The Boy lied down too and yawned. Tom turned over on his other side and fell asleep.

He slept peacefully for several hours until he suddenly felt some pressure on his chest. He fought against that pressure, tried to push it away so that he could sleep some more. He felt leather in the shape of a boot. Somebody was stepping on him!

Tom’s heart-rate accelerated and he woke up. But for a while he pretended still to be half asleep. With the left hand he stroked the boot that was crushing his chest, while the right hand went down to his hip. For an anxious split-second he feared his revolver wouldn’t be there, but it was. It felt good to touch its wooden grip.

Now the revolver was in his hand and pointing straight up. Above himself he saw the leg sticking out from the boot, and above the leg the wide coat was hanging down, and yet much higher up, sticking out of the collar of the coat was The Boy’s head whose face looked as worn and expressionless as the face of a water-logged corpse.

Tom’s gun was aiming straight at that leaden face, but The Boy ignored it completely. He just whispered: “Nacho wants to talk to you. He’s waiting for you in the court-yard.”

The whispering tone somehow made The Boy seem trustworthy. Tom lowered his revolver, then he slowly stood up. He put the revolver back in the holster and walked to the door to the court-yard. He opened the old, creaky door and stepped out into the night. The sky was already lightening with the first hints of dawn, but the moon was still gleaming brightly, hanging there like a big, silent, silver gong.

Tom noticed some movement in the dark shadows of a low wall. His eyes turned towards it and he saw the barrel of a revolver waving at him!

Nacho was sitting on the ground, leaning against the wall. In his left hand he held a cigar, in his right the gun. The barrel was pointing at Tom’s belly.

Now Tom felt more than saw some movement behind himself – The Boy’s hand came round and pulled Tom’s gun out of the holster.

Practically simultaneously The Boy shoved Tom further into the court-yard and closed the door behind himself. He threw Tom’s revolver behind the wall against which Nacho was leaning. Tom stood before Nacho unarmed, and The Boy was standing next to him as a guard.

Tom felt damn stupid – this was the second time he faced these two men unarmed! Why did he let this happen again? Why hadn’t he just shot them long ago? He knew he could do it, didn’t he? And instead of that he kept standing in front of them without his gun! Why? It was like a bad dream!

Nacho brought his left hand up to his face, sucked air through the cigar, so that it sounded like a kiss, while caressing his nose and chin with his fingers. It was as if he was making love to his hand and to the cigar stuck between his fingers.

After a while his left hand drifted away from his face again, exposing the half-open mouth. Nacho’s eyes longingly followed its movement as it floated away, as if it wasn’t really part of his own body.

But then Nacho’s eyes turned to Tom. They stared at him penetratingly and darkly.

“Do you have anything to tell me?” he asked, but the tone of the voice showed it was no real question.

Tom answered back, trying to keep his voice under control: “I have nothing to tell you.”

Nacho’s eyes slipped away from Tom’s fearfully expectant stare. They focused inwards. Dreamily Nacho waited for his left hand that was coming back towards his face with the cigar. He pressed his face into the hand, suckled on the cigar and snuggled against the fingers.

“That’s what I feared,” he whispered as if to himself. He nodded towards The Boy and looked up at Tom with deep pity in his eyes.

Tom got a mighty punch in his belly. As he bent over in pain, the callous edge of The Boy’s huge hand came smashing into the nape of his neck. Tom felt his whole personality inside himself come crashing down and crumbling to dust.

He was lifted up by the collar, and Nacho asked once again, with a somewhat sweeter voice: “Don’t you have anything to tell me?”

Tom didn’t answer and was hit once again.

Then the question came again in the same tone of voice.

Tom just said: “No.”

He was hit again and again, but he only said no, no, no, no, without even being asked. He didn’t feel the blows anymore, and he didn’t hear Nacho’s voice either.

Finally he was left lying on his back on the ground.

“He is obdurate,” said Nacho, “we must try something else.”

Now The Boy kneeled down beside Tom. Tom saw the leaden face with the evil eyes right in front of him.

“You still don’t have anything to tell us?” The Boy himself asked this time. The voice was deep, grainy and without melody.

Tom heard the voice and saw the dirty strands of hair in The Boy’s face. But he didn’t answer.

The Boy’s hands came over Tom’s face. Slowly The Boy pressed his thumbs onto Tom’s eye-lids.

Tom saw blinding flames in front of himself and he had to scream. The pressure eased, and the flames transformed themselves into flickering, dark-red spots.

“I’ll tell you everything… everything…” whimpered Tom. And then he started telling a messy story that he himself didn’t remember later on. Anyway, what was there really to tell? That he had shot Ned and Ted? But that wasn’t even true, he had only shot Ted. Then why was Ned killed? Who killed him? Ted. And why did Ted kill him? And then why did Tom kill Ted? Because Ted had killed Ned? Tom had wanted to protect Ned, maybe? It all didn’t make sense. What about the posse? Did Tom warn the authorities in Anthony? No, of course not. But where did the pursuers suddenly come from? From Earlham where no robbery had ever taken place. But if no robbery had even taken place there, why had they gone to Earlham to start with? The whole thing made strictly no sense, but Tom was talking freely.

Nacho kept interrupting Tom, urged him with questions and slapped him. Tom felt the ash from Nacho’s cigar under his nose. He was being held down by The Boy while Nacho was working on him. Nacho’s voice was not falsely mild or sweet anymore, and his affected child-like ways had turned to eager sadism.

At some point Tom’s eyes cleared, and he saw the wide-open eyes and quivering lips of a totally out-of-control Nacho right above himself.

Next to Nacho’s face there was The Boy’s head, coarsely carved out of rock, unmoved as always.

Tom was just babbling non-sense that he didn’t even understand himself, and he hardly felt how he was being slapped. He knew that Nacho would give up soon. Tom would be shot, probably with more than one bullet, but it would all be over with the first.

Indeed, Nacho gave up. He stood up and made Tom, who was still babbling, shut up with a kick in the temple.

Tom lost consciousness.

Eventually he saw many stars above himself. They were blinking at him in a friendly way from a moist sky. He felt the dew-wet grass on his swollen cheeks. The grass-blades were ticklish but their touch was pleasant. Tom felt that all his surroundings were distinctly kind and friendly. He was undoubtedly inclined to find everything quite friendly that happened not to be punching him…

It took a while till Tom became aware of his returned awareness and started wondering where he was and why. The beating he had taken came back to him straight away – Nacho’s face floated in front of his inner eye and darkened the peacefully star-lit sky. Tom tried to chase away the evil image and to clear his thoughts. He tensed some of his muscles to discover the position his body was lying in. He managed to turn onto his tummy. The weight of his body shifted from his right arm, on which it had been lying, onto his tummy. The blood circulation in the arm started up again, and Tom felt an excruciating pain, as if of a thousand prickling ants. Tom wanted to stretch his arms and move them, but he couldn’t, because they were tied together across his back.

Tom wanted to stand up, but without the help of his arms his weakened body wouldn’t do it. Exhausted he fell asleep again in the new position he was in. He had confused dreams and woke up again a few hours later with a strange humming in his head. This time he managed to get to his knees. The humming in his head became stronger, and he felt sick. He vomited, and a sparse, nauseous liquid foamed at the edges of his mouth. The stomach-acid hurt on his sore lips. Tom licked his lips clean and spat out the awful juice.

Now he really felt a bit better. He deeply breathed in the night-air and tried to stand up once again, still without managing. At least he could think clearly again.

Why had Nacho left Tom alive? There was just one sensible answer – there was still a role for him to play. The role of a dummy, undoubtedly. Perhaps the idea was that Tom should dehydrate and starve, and then his body would be left outside of Anthony, its pockets stuffed full of money. After finding his body, the sheriff would undoubtedly start looking for the rest of the gang nearby…

A hint of a smile came over Tom’s face, a grim smile, but his skin hurt too much for the smile to take shape completely. Nacho had thought it out real nicely, but he had been mistaken about Tom. Tom was going to escape. He would wear out the rope against the edge of some rock somewhere and then he would get back his revolver. And then Nacho would be sorry for having let him live!

Tom couldn’t stand up yet, but he was sure it was only a matter of time.

It still seemed odd to him that his escape would be made so easy. But now he saw, in the dim light of dawn, that he was locked up in a pasture surrounded by a fence of thick barbed wire. A man with both hands free would have had a hard time climbing over it. Tom had a sickly feeling when he imagined getting stuck in those barbs!

The sky became lighter by the minute. In the distance Tom saw a few horses waking up and plucking some grass in the pasture. They were Nacho’s horses, and Bess was among them too.

Tom wondered why the morning was starting only now, even though he remembered clearly having been beaten up till dawn. The thought startled him that he must have lain unconscious for a whole day and a night, or perhaps even several of them.

Tom must have been in a really critical state. But now he was fully conscious again, and all his wounds would heal. And even if he had lost many millions of brain-cells, he still had enough of them left to finish off Nacho and his gang!

The grazing horses came in his direction by chance. Tom didn’t move, so as not to startle them. When Bess was within hearing, he started talking to her. His voice was hoarse, but Bess recognized it. She went on grazing contentedly, but she sharpened her ears and steered somewhat towards Tom. After a little while she stood right in front of him.

She lifted her head from the grass and blew warm air from her wide nostrils into his face. Tom, still on his knees, bent forwards and gave her a kiss on her soft snout. Bess rubbed her brow against Tom’s chest till he fell over. When that happened, she sniffed at him a bit surprised. Tom talked to her soothingly, and she lost her concern. She turned away and started plucking grass again nearby.

Tom wondered if there was a way for him to mount Bess. He was sure he would be saved if only he managed to get on her back. But Bess wasn’t wearing any saddle and thus no stirrups either, and Tom couldn’t use his hands and he couldn’t even stand on his feet. 

Horses aren’t ruminants, but they still lie down sometimes, for relaxing or sleeping. Tom had found Bess lying down in the early morning more than once. He dearly hoped she would lie down now!

Bess seemed to want to eat endlessly, but she didn’t go far from her master. As the day got lighter, the juicy grass became less interesting, though. Bess lifted her head a few times, sniffed the air and listened. Suddenly she trotted away, but she soon came back close to Tom. The fresh, new day, breaking anew every day as if it were always the first, fresh and innocent morning of this corrupt world, gave the horses high spirits. Bess lied down and rolled in the grass like a little dog. Her long, muscular legs thrashed about clumsily in the air.

Now Bess was lying on her side, listening. Her back was turned towards Tom. Tom waddled over to her on his knees and laid himself halfway over her. He put one leg across her tummy and let the other one lie on the ground next to her back. He laid his chest and head onto her neck, took a bushel of her mane into his mouth and bit on it hard. Bess didn’t quite understand what this was supposed to mean, and in a slight fit of panic she tried to get up. Which she managed, pulling Tom up with her.

Tom was now sitting astride the horse, and even though he was badly bent forward, he felt he would be able to ride a short distance. He held on to Bess’ mane with his teeth.

He had a strange feeling in his stomach, but he also felt a tingle of excitement in his testicles.

He still felt a bit dizzy, but he didn’t want to postpone his plan too much. He pressed his heels gently into Bess’ tummy. She walked off all naturally, without surprise. She hadn’t quite understood how Tom had gotten onto her back, but obviously he was there now, so she obeyed him like usual.

Tom was riding across the pasture at a leisurely walk. He pushed his heels back into the ticklish part of her tummy. She started trotting. Tom was badly shaken on her bare back. He couldn’t straighten himself up to catch the rhythm of her movements. Grimly and hoarsely he whispered: “Gallop! Gallop!”

Bess laid back her ears, stretched her neck forward and… blasted off!

A fair distance ahead of them Tom could see the fence of the pasture. Behind the fence there was the open horizon. Tom hoped Bess understood that they were leaving now, and that he meant her to jump over the fence.

Tom had never ridden Bess round and round in a paddock. Surely she must know that their goal lay straight ahead, mustn’t she?

But would she be able to clear that high fence with her lame rider? After all it was high enough to discourage such behaviour, since it was precisely meant to pen in the horses!

But it is common knowledge that a well-trained horse will jump much higher with its rider than it ever would left to its own devices (unless it was escaping from something in a panic).

Tom and his horse swept over the grass of the pasture like a gun-bullet. The landscape opened up in front of them, swished past on either side and closed itself again seamlessly behind them.

But the fence still dominated the whole breadth of the view in front of them. Instead of opening up, it just became threateningly bigger, till Tom saw individual spikes in the barbed wire.

Bess was aware of the fence too, and she measured her paces and then sped up to an all-out sprint.

Tom’s legs clamped her tightly.

Now they were there – Bess pulled her hind legs far under her rump and gave a tremendous shove. At the same moment, with a superhuman effort, Tom pushed himself up from her back, holding on to her only with his knees and his teeth, and saw the fence flying by underneath.

They landed, Bess lifted up her head and Tom was flung back into a sitting position. His teeth had to let go of her mane. Bess gradually slowed from the all-out gallop to a canter. And when the ground became rocky, Tom managed to slow her down to a walk with his voice. They went on between some boulders till they were out of sight from the pasture, and Tom stopped her with his voice. He bent forward and caught her mane with his teeth once more, and then he slipped off her back. The bristly strands of hair hurt in his mouth, but when he was standing next to her he let go. At first he thought his legs wouldn’t support him, but they did. He even managed to set down one foot in front of the other and to walk a few wobbly steps.

With a sigh he sank down next to a big rock and started with the long job of wearing off the rope.

 

Tom felt life boiling and bubbling within himself – he felt more alive than ever! Slowly, almost with awe, he brought his hands - now that they were free - up to his eyes and moved each finger individually.

Tom stood up (yes, he could stand up!) and went over to Bess. He called Bess to a small rock from which he could climb on her back and mounted her.

Well now, where should he go? Nacho and his men had surely discovered his disappearance by now. They would be looking for him by now. But Tom didn’t have a weapon yet. At night he would creep up to the wall of the court and get his revolver back, provided it was still lying where Nacho had thrown it so casually on the night of the beating. But there was a long while to go till then, since the day was all fresh – it was morning!

Tom should find something to eat. The strange feeling in his stomach (a feeling of emptiness and queasiness) wasn’t exactly hunger, but Tom knew he had to eat in order to survive. So he rode towards the village. There he would eat and hide till the evening. He wanted to make use of today to get back into shape. In the evening he would go and get back his revolver, and the next day he would show himself, so that Nacho’s men would come to hunt for him. He would shoot them all, and then the great moment would come when Nacho turned up in person. And then they would be face to face at last!

Tom arrived in the village. He was back among the squat houses once again. Those white cubes out of which a slender plume of smoke was rising into the morning air here and there. It was peaceful and quiet. No one was to be seen anywhere. What should he do? Knock at the nicest-looking door? Did he have any money at all to pay for some food? He put his hand in his pocket – yes, there were some coins there…

Nacho obviously hadn’t found it necessary to search his unconscious body and to put his hands into Tom’s dirty pockets.

Of course the biggest part of Tom’s money had stayed in the saddle-bags, and the saddle was lying in the hide-out of Nacho’s gang. Tom’s skin cringed at the thought of Nacho laying hands on his dollars. But having a few cents was decidedly better than nothing at all, and Tom by far hadn’t lost all his possessions – he was conscious and he had his horse!

Nearby there was a door that looked like the entrance to a stable. The door was ajar. A smell of frying eggs and bacon wafted out from the door right into Tom’s nostrils, and he felt he could really do with some food. He got off his horse and went over to the door and pushed it open. In front of himself he saw a full manger, and on the other side of the room, without being separated from the stable, there was a table, behind it a comfortable chair, and in the corner there was a fire-place over which the bacon and eggs were bathing in a frying pan in the cheerfully bubbling fat. Else the room was empty. Nobody was around anywhere. A hat stand was standing all forlorn at the door. A poncho was hanging on it, and a hat, so that the hat stand looked just like a person seen from behind.

Tom called Bess into the stable and led her to the manger. Then he approached the fire-place to take the frying pan off the fire. An inconspicuous movement in the corner of his eye made him turn around as if struck by lightening, and his right hand clapped against his right hip where the revolver should have been.

Sunk deep into the chair a small human form was sitting. Tom hadn’t noticed it before. Tom could make out the features of an old man with a white beard.

“Good morning,” said Tom.

The man answered something that Tom couldn’t understand and pointed at the pan with a skinny hand. Tom took the pan off the fire and decidedly put it down next to a wooden spoon on the table. The old man pointed at the pan and then at Tom. If Tom wasn’t mistaken, he was being invited to eat.

The eggs were still much too hot to be eaten since the fat was still bubbling. Tom bent over the pan and blew on the eggs. The old man nodded, stood up slowly and tottered to the door. He went out and disappeared.

Tom shook his head because he couldn’t understand all this. But then he pulled the chair to the table and started eating.

After a while he wondered what the behaviour of the old man might mean. Tom obviously belonged to the undoubtedly unpopular gang of outlaws. So why was he being shown such hospitality? Or was the old man going to return with three young men to beat him up once more? Tom discarded this distasteful possibility.

It was much more likely, he told himself, that the old man had seen his wounds and blue marks and thus knew that Tom had been rejected by the gang. For the inhabitants of this village, Tom thought to himself, he was the enemy of the enemy. Tom convinced himself so much of the support of the village people that he soon felt quite homely on the comfortable chair.

It was a swivel chair, worthy of a president. Or maybe it was, in actual fact, just a hair-dresser’s or a dentist’s chair. In any case it was comfortable, and Tom soon started slumbering in it.

A bit later the old man came back. He said something, but Tom didn’t understand. Tom couldn’t even make out whether he was speaking English or Spanish. The old man’s mumbling didn’t seem to form any clearly defined sounds. The old man gave Tom some bread and ham, and Tom slowly ate it, sinking back into his drowse.

The flames in the fire-place were licking at the wood and nibbling at it. The air-draft caused by the fire was roaring like a distant waterfall. Tom let it fill his mind.

Tom spent most of the day in the chair in front of the fire-place. He only stood up a couple of times to go out and urinate or refresh himself at the well. In those cases he always put on the poncho and the hat, so that Nacho’s men wouldn’t recognize him straight away if any of them were hanging around.

But nothing could be seen or heard of Nacho’s band. Tom was suddenly afraid they might all have left. Maybe Nacho thought Tom had gone to denounce them. But Tom discarded this thought straight away – Nacho wouldn’t run away from him. That wouldn’t be his style. And if it had to come to a fight once more, he was better off here, in this village full of potential hostages, rather than out in the open.

In the evening the old man brought some olives and other fruit. Tom ate them all, even though he didn’t like all of them so much. He didn’t feel sleepy anymore. Soon he would set out to get his revolver back. And then he would kill off Nacho’s gang, laboriously or swiftly, that still remained to be seen…

Tom waited another few hours which seemed very long with respect to the lazy day he had had. His heart was pounding hard as he wondered what the night might hold in store for him!

At about midnight Tom started off on foot. He went slowly, since he had plenty of time. He went the same way as the day when he had first arrived in the village. He wanted to make sure he wouldn’t miss the farm where Nacho and his men had set up their headquarters. He found it easily enough, even in the dark. He saw the pasture in which he had lain unconscious, who knows for how long. The cool moonlight shimmered on the wet grass. In the distance Tom saw the dark shapes of the horses which had been Bess’ colleagues for a time. Tom looked for the small court in which he had been beaten up so badly. He followed a well-trodden path leading away from the gate of the pasture, and was thinking how his lifeless body must have been dragged along this very same path in the other direction not so long ago. The thought made him shudder.

At last he reached the wall near which his revolver must be lying. It was a low wall, and Tom saw that it was lit up on its inner side by a flickering yellowish glow. A fire was obviously burning in the court.

Tom slowly raised his eyes above the wall, and quickly lowered his head again – two men were sitting next to the fire in the court and were obviously keeping watch. Tom had to be very quiet!

But how would he ever find the revolver without betraying himself with rustling sounds? Which alternative would rouse less suspicions – continuous, light rustling, or just a quick, careless rustle every once in a while? Tom decided he just mustn’t rustle at all and to check out the ground really, really slowly. He could take all night if necessary. After all his life was in the balance.

Tom lied down flat on the ground and started with the job. He couldn’t avoid making a crackling sound here and there when his hand moved or broke a twig.

One of the men in the court stood up and started walking up and down. Suddenly he stopped and looked directly in Tom’s direction. His right hand went down to his hip.

Tom didn’t move. His heart was beating so hard that he thought the whole world should hear it.

The right hand of the man came up again, and the face of the man was suddenly lit up by the flare of a match. Then the light went out and the man blew a long cloud of smoke towards the moon and turned away again.

Hissing, but not too loudly, the breath he had held back came out between Tom’s clenched teeth.

Tom went on with his job. The man in the court had finally sat down again.

Tom’s heart skipped a beat when his little finger grazed something ice-cold. Tom groped for it, trying to keep his excitement under control. It was the revolver!

The matter-of-fact coldness of the metal cooled down Tom’s overheated feelings. His fear left him. Tom slowly raised himself and looked over the wall.

The two men were sitting on either side of the fire which was flickering happily. Tom wondered whether he should shoot them. But they were too far apart.

While Tom would shoot one of them, the other one might have time to react. Tom didn’t want to make the same mistake as his friend Jim had made.

So Tom slipped away soundlessly. He would save up his grand revenge for tomorrow.

 

Early the next morning Tom woke up on the comfortable chair and didn’t feel sleepy anymore at all. He stood up and put on the poncho and the hat and left the room to refresh himself outside at the well. The hat and the poncho weren’t really necessary as a disguise anymore, since Tom had his gun in his holster now. But the day before he had always put them on before leaving the stable, and now he felt it was like some kind of luck-bringing ceremony.

Anyway, he wanted to eat breakfast before hunting down Nacho’s men.

As he came back into the room, he hanged up the poncho carefully and set the hat on top, exactly according to the ceremony. Then he settled on the chair once more and waited for breakfast.

Inwardly he smiled about his own superstition, but he also had a strong feeling that he needed to be at peace with himself today, and this feeling wasn’t to be laughed at.

Tom hadn’t waited long when the door of the stable suddenly burst open and a man hurled himself into the room. He had a revolver in hand and started pumping bullets into the hat-stand.

Tom leaned forward in his chair, his mouth gaping. He couldn’t believe it! But then he swiveled round in the chair till he faced the man and gave him a single bullet into his chest.

The man’s eyes stared in surprise as he collapsed and died.

Tom stood up and went over to the hat-stand. It stood there unmoved and was not at all deader than before. Tom felt the poncho that he had started to like. He found one of the holes, but else the material was as nicely woolly as before – not much harm done.

Tom went to the door, and as he walked past the body he savoured for a moment his contempt towards this man whom he had tricked without even intending to!

Then he was outside and had to pay attention.

Slowly he walked down the street. He looked neither to the right nor to the left. He stared straight ahead, keeping his eyes still, while paying attention to his peripheral vision. When you do that, your stare looks empty and emotionless – it’s the dangerous stare of the gun-slinger.

Tom suspected that Nacho’s men would try to shoot him from a window or a roof-top. He was right – suddenly he felt more than saw a movement on his right.

The suspicious spot was about to move out of his field of vision. Tom took a step back while turning right and drawing his gun.

Under the dark opening of a window there was a long, narrow shadow. Some kind of shaft or handle was sticking out of the window, and its shadow had moved a tiny bit over the white-washed wall. That’s what had drawn Tom’s attention. That thing sticking out must be the barrel of a gun!

Tom didn’t stop to think about it – he fired a bullet into the dark hole right above the suspicious, moving shadow.

The man hidden in the shade from the white-washed walls had just straightened himself up to shoot Tom.

He fell forward and his body spilled out of the dark hole that he had wanted to use as an embrasure.

Tom left the body hanging there over the window-sill and walked onwards.

No danger seemed to be lurking anywhere, but a few hundred steps ahead he saw three men step into the middle of the street and block it. They stood there stoutly with their arms crossed. Tom walked onwards unflustered, directly towards them. He stared ahead with his vacant stare as before.

The distance between Tom and the three men became smaller and smaller. When Tom started feeling close enough for shooting, he put half a cigar in his mouth and lit it with a miraculously intact match he had found in his chest pocket.

The three men just stood there. Tom was attentive to the movement of his hips as he walked. They moved back and forth and to either side ever so slightly. His arms swung back and forth casually. Back and forth, back and forth. Another five steps, Tom decided, and he would be able to shoot right on target.

He started counting from five downwards. His hips moved from side to side and his arms swung back and forth.

“Go!” said Tom without moving his lips.

His right hip moved forward and to the right just as his right arm was swinging past. It picked up the revolver in passing.

He hit the first man while his arms were still crossed over his chest. He fell over like a doll.

The second man’s arms were already hovering tautly above his revolvers in the symmetrical holsters. The man seemed to want to leap forward, but he missed and landed head-first in the dirt.

The third man tore his arms right above his head as he was hit. The revolver which was already in his hand went flying. He too ended up in the dirt quite unceremoniously.

Tom lifted the barrel of his revolver to his nose and took a quick sniff of the pungent smell of death.

But the intoxicating feeling of triumph subsided rather quickly and Tom felt low. He dragged his feet through the dust towards his victims. He sucked in the smoke from his cigar and bent over one of the bodies so that he could steal some ammunition. He reloaded his gun and stepped over the bodies.

Now he was walking down the street again. The revolver was in its holster again, fully loaded, and he had put on his gun-slinger stare again. He was inescapably getting closer to Nacho’s headquarters. Soon the main building was right in front of him. He saw the main entrance through which Nacho had penetrated into the farm-house so shamelessly a few days ago. Tom unerringly steered towards it. He was already crossing the plastered surface in front of the door.

Now the door-handle was within reach of his hand.

It was one of these timeless moments again. Tom half expected his inner voice to say something. It didn’t, but he felt its approval.

These thoughts just crossed his mind in a blink. Without a pause he tore the door open and penetrated into the house.

Revolver in hand he burst into a lovely family-scene -  Nacho and four of his men were sitting on the ground, peacefully assembled around the safe. Obviously they had been working on it, trying to find a way to pry it open. Tom pointed his revolver at Nacho’s brow, and Nacho’s face turned white. Even his dark-red lips lost their sheen. Tom hadn’t imagined he would ever get to see such a thing.

Nacho knew he would be the first to die if anybody moved. He just wondered how it was possible that Tom suddenly appeared here. He had sent out five of his men to get him! And yet Tom had got through!

Nacho swallowed noisily and thus interrupted the deadly silence. He lifted his eyes to Tom and started talking, his voice barely shaking at all: “What are you going to do, Tom? You stand no chance against the five of us.”

Tom answered casually, chewing on his cigar: “If your men care about you enough, then I have a chance.”

Nacho asked: “How?”

His voice was steady, but the affected child-likeness was absolutely missing. Tom had already won over that.

Tom answered: “If your men lay down their weapons, I’ll drop mine in its holster.”

Nacho was about to agree, but The Boy, who normally hardly ever spoke, interrupted him with his deep, colourless voice: “I’ll only lay down my gun if Tom unloads his own down to one bullet.”

Tom had to admit this was a perfectly sensible suggestion. Once he had shot Nacho with his one bullet, he would be on equal footing with the four remaining members of the gang.

Nacho lowered his head and nodded slowly. It was sensible all right. He just wished nobody had thought of it. It meant that The Boy, his most faithful man, considered it possible that he could lose…

Tom let one bullet after the other glide out of his revolver and drop on the floor, so that all the men could keep count. In the meantime the four men unbuckled their belts and laid them down in a corner of the room.

Tom had let out five bullets from his revolver and so everyone knew there could only be one more left. The one that would kill Nacho unless Nacho killed Tom first.

The Boy was the last to unbuckle his belt, and as he did so, Tom slipped his gun into its holster and let it go. Nacho stood up and his men formed a half-circle around him.

Now Tom was standing with a single bullet in his revolver in front of five men of whom only one was armed.

Tom and Nacho were facing each other. They were going to fight it out now. The big moment of which Tom had dreamed so often was here at last!

Nacho held his head to one side. His eyes were rather wide open and very much alive. For the first time Tom noticed that Nacho had quite long eye-lashes. Nacho blinked a few times. His eyes were a bit moist. His big nostrils opened slightly, and quivered, like the nostrils of a horse catching a scent. Tom had never noticed Nacho’s big nose before. Nacho’s lips were resting silently one against the other. They were old, leathery lips with a few cracks. Wind and weather had worked on them. Tom had never paid attention to these things before.

Nacho laid his right hand across his belly, as if he had a stomach-ache. It was resting only inches from the flat shoulder-holster from which the wooden grip of the big gun was sticking out.

That wooden grip was the only thing Nacho had ever held in his hand lovingly. Nacho stretched out his index and gently caressed the rough, worn wood. But his hand wasn’t ready for its leap yet. Perhaps its last.

Tom just stood there like someone filing a just claim.

Nacho stood in front of Tom and looked a bit like a sick child.

How was it possible, Nacho wondered? How was it possible that he should be standing in front of this ordinary-looking kid like this?

He retracted his index, and his hand didn’t move anymore, not yet.

His lips separated, and for a while a thin, transparent veil of saliva hung between them. When the tension became too big, the veil popped soundlessly, and then Nacho’s voice rang out, melodiously like in his best times, but this time the sentences weren’t cut off in the middle of their melody. Each one faded away gently. That seems to be the difference between real and ironic melancholy.

“Will you tell me now who you are and why you seeked me out?”

The same question again as in that dreadful night, just asked in a different tone. Tom thought up all kinds of stupid excuses – he hadn’t seeked out Nacho at all. It was him who had seeked out Tom. But what had happened to Ned and Ted? Why did the posse come back from Earlham so quickly? Who had been shooting on Nacho’s men from the hotel? And above all – WHY?

Nacho deserved a proper answer now.

“All I want is to sell your skin.”

It was a devastating answer, but it was also the only honest one, and Nacho had deserved it.

After all the terrible things he had done in his life, all the people he had hurt and who had a thousand reasons to want him dead, he was finally going to die for nothing more glorious than a stupid handful of dollars!

Nacho laid his lips one onto the other and said nothing more.

His hand awoke to fresh life. It started moving back and forth across his dirty shirt, preparing to leap.

Tom’s eyes narrowed to slits, and now Tom couldn’t see the expression on Nacho’s face anymore.

Nacho’s hand jumped at the grip of his revolver!

Tom’s arm twitched.

Nacho’s hand was on the grip of the revolver.

Tom’s single bullet flew upwards from the region of his hips and broke through Nacho’s brow.

Blood spewed from the hole in Nacho’s brow. He jerked back as if he had been hit by a fist.

The Boy was counting on Tom being appalled and sprang towards the corner where all the guns were lying. But Tom forestalled him by diving to the floor and skidding into the heap of guns on his tummy. He drew one of the revolvers from its holster and shot The Boy who was still standing and bending over the guns.

Tom rolled to the side to avoid being squashed under The Boy’s huge collapsing body and fired three more shots.

The last three of Nacho’s men who were in the midst of hurling themselves at Tom and the pile of guns were held up in mid-flight. They stumbled and fell over each other with open mouths.

Tom delighted in the authority a loaded gun gave him – he decided “Stop!”, and all he needed to do was to pull a little trigger, and the men immediately stopped in their tracks. They stopped with whatever they were doing, even the most emotional, intensive stuff!

But unlike a faithful slave who stands to attention, dead bodies aren’t receptive for new orders. You might indeed have the power to make them stop in their tracks, but that’s the last order they’ll ever obey. After that you can sell their skin, but beyond that they’re useless…

So a revolver just gives you the power to clear the way. But once the way is cleared, you have to follow it on your own. If you kill everybody you meet, you’ll never be accompanied anywhere by anybody. That’s the fundamental loneliness of the gun-slinger.

Tom felt this loneliness very clearly as he started collecting the bodies and piling them up on a hay wagon he had found in the barn. Then he tied a solid rope around the safe and made Bess lug it up a ramp onto the wagon. He shoved the metallic box - that had so stubbornly resisted all attempts to open it and so was still intact - against the dead bodies. Then he fetched the two big horses from the pasture and harnessed them to the wagon, and he tied Bess to the back of it.

He climbed onto the seat and set the horses into motion. He was quite aware of stealing the wagon, but after all he left ten of Nacho’s horses behind, and that was surely more than enough to compensate.

He stopped for a moment at the house with the hat-stand. The hat-stand looked like an empty skeleton. Tom quickly dressed it up with the poncho and hat again. He stole some food that had materialized in the room adjoining the stable as if by magic, and then he set off again.

Soon he had left behind the quiet Mexican village with its white houses and brown inhabitants. He reached the ominous canyon where ten outlaws had massacred their twenty pursuers. The bodies on the path looked like old piles of rags. Soon only bones and tatters of clothing would be lying here. Tom led his precious cargo of fresh bodies past the old ones and then through the canyon.

He clearly felt the lonesomeness of the gun-slinger once again – he was in the middle of the traces of worldly occurrences that he alone had survived because he somehow hadn’t really belonged into them at all.

He wandered back to Anthony where he would take up his life with Bess and the fat gelding once again.

 

Tom drove into town with his well-loaded wagon. He paid no attention to the people who were turning towards him. But soon he heard the astonished calls: “Nacho!.. He’s bringing us Nacho’s body!”

People streamed out of the houses onto the street and walked behind the wagon in droves. Some of them pressed forward till they could touch Nacho’s boots or spit in his face.

They accompanied Tom all the way to the house of the sheriff, and as soon as they were there a dozen helpful men started unloading the bodies. Tom jumped down from the seat of the wagon and the crowd respectfully made space for him. The sheriff had already been called out of his office and was washed up to Tom by the excited crowd.

The sheriff didn’t like being called by his people like that. He didn’t like being the last to know what’s going on. He much rather wanted to be the first and to lead his people. He was quite new in Anthony and he was still fighting for his place there. So he looked at Tom - this hero who had suddenly appeared from nowhere – rather darkly. But he said “Good day, sir” very politely.

Tom wasn’t used to being called „sir“, especially by a sheriff. And just now, when he was dirty and his body full of cramps, it happened for the first time!

The sheriff said: “I hear you’re bringing us Nacho and his whole gang.”

It wasn’t a question, just an observation full of appreciation.

Tom answered: “As far as I know, they’re all here.”

The sheriff was led to the bodies who had all been neatly laid out by now. He saw them lying there, quite dead, unmistakably dead.

How can one believe in spirits and ghosts, he wondered? These bodies were lying here so wretchedly and helplessly and so utterly dead that Nacho’s spirit, if it still existed in the ether somewhere, must feel much too humiliated to ever want to show itself again!

He turned away and asked Tom to follow him into his office. There he started adding up the money he owed Tom. Ten thousand for Nacho, five thousand for The Boy… The sheriff named the eight other names with which Tom wasn’t even familiar at all and added a few thousand dollars for each one of them. It added up to twenty-seven thousand all in all. The sheriff wrote a cheque to be cashed in at the bank as soon as the safe would be set back into its place.

Tom took the cheque, thanked him, left the office, mounted on Bess and rode away.

He rode to the hotel and put Bess into the stable next to the gelding. The gelding lifted his head and pushed it over to Bess’s side and gave her a friendly nudge with his nose. Then he nudged Tom as well, inviting him to give him a piece of carrot. Tom went off to fetch an apple for his two horses. He decided that he liked the big gelding after all, and that he had missed him.

In another stall nearby he found Jim’s old mule. He didn’t seem to recognize Tom, but he looked contended all in all – he had obviously been cared for well too, even if he didn’t look very precious.

Tom brushed down Bess, patted all the horses and left the stable.

He wanted to go to his room, but he was held back at the reception desk.

“So you brought us Nacho?” asked the hotelier, and the admiration in his voice made it clear that he already knew the answer. Tom shrugged his shoulders. He didn’t understand how the news could have traveled so fast, and he didn’t like it much that now he wasn’t a normal man anymore at all!

A man excitedly ran through the door and said out of breath: “Tom Miller, you’re expected at the bank!”

The hotelier hanged the key to Tom’s room back onto its hook without having given it to Tom. Tom let himself be guided through the open door and stared into the crowd that was waiting for him outside.

He had never even seen so many faces at once before. It was like a sea of faces. He couldn’t make out individual features. It was unimaginable that behind each of these faces there was a thinking brain like his own. Perhaps there really wasn’t. How could there be? He felt very much alone with his thinking brain all of a sudden…

The flowing crowd took hold of Tom and washed him across the street to the bank.

Now Tom was standing at the entrance to the bank. He saw the imperfections of the white-washed stone-work and the splinters in the weather-worn wooden door right in front of him.

He hadn’t stepped this close to the bank before, because he would have been afraid of seeming suspicious. Tom didn’t like to be in places without having a clearly stated business there. There was a kind of shyness in him. Strange when you consider that he could beat just about anybody he wanted on the draw…

But being fast on the draw is just one aspect of life. In others Tom by far didn’t feel so self-confident.

Today Tom was being celebrated as a great hero, and everyone expected him to know how to behave like a hero, to make speeches and such. Tom didn’t really know how to deal with this sudden fame, and he felt dreadfully forlorn and alone as he was facing this tumultuous, sensation-hungry crowd.

The hay-wagon had moved up to the bank. The banker came out of the main door of his bank, rolled up his sleeves in a theatrical way and climbed onto the wagon. One of his clerks handed him a big key, and he opened the battered safe with it. The iron door of the safe was very hard to move, and the clerk jumped up on the wagon to help. The door screeched in complaint, but finally it swung open and the safe revealed its contents – many big, neatly piled up bank-notes!

Tom was astonished that the contents were still so orderly, after all the safe had gone through! The banknotes were packed so tightly that they hadn’t been able to move at all…

The banker’s face beamed as he plunged his arms into the safe.

“Tom Miller, please!” he called.

Tom came closer to the wagon and was handed forty thousand dollars. That was the reward offered by the bank for returning the money. Tom stuffed the huge bundle into his shirt and signed the receipt that was ceremoniously held up to him.

Then he pulled out the cheque for the twenty-seven thousand dollars the sheriff had written out for him and handed it to the banker. The banker plunged his arms into the safe once more and fished out more thousand-dollar bills. He counted them out for Tom. Finally Tom had sixty-seven of them all told. That was a LOT of money!

With his shirt almost bursting, Tom gravely marched back to the hotel through the crowd. At the reception desk he was respectfully handed the key to his room, and then he could finally go up and hide from the crowd at last.

He felt dead-tired as he washed himself with cold water. Half-naked he slipped into the clean bed. But he couldn’t fall asleep, because the bed seemed to be heaved around by huge waves, as if it were floating on a billowy ocean rather than standing firmly on the floor. Tom felt a bit sick. The events of the last few days had been too much for him. Now that it was all over, Tom was too shaken to sleep. For days he had had a single goal in front of his eyes. Now he had reached it, and now he had to find his next step. In the meantime his memories were shaking him and he couldn’t reach any inner peace.

His newly found fame didn’t really please him all that much – it was more of a burden at this point. Of course it is nice on some level to meet awed stares wherever you go, but in times of trouble he would have to face the expectations as well. It was surely easier to be an anonymous figure who isn’t exposed to all these worldly matters so much and only has himself to take care of.

 

Tom woke up late the next morning, and he was almost sorry for not being able to sleep longer. Even just the thought of getting up made his bones ache. But he didn’t feel comfortable in bed any longer either. It was time to start something else, something new. He had defeated Nacho, but he felt restless as before. Or rather, he felt more restless because he didn’t have a goal to focus on anymore.

He had to find a new goal. He was tired of his adventures. They tired him out, made him rich and ever richer, but never seemed to lead to anything beyond that.

Tom owned almost a hundred thousand dollars now, and that was surely enough to buy a nice piece of land with a water-source, a herd of cows, and a ranch…

He felt like going back to his home-town and playing the big man there. And he should certainly pay a visit to his mother... Tom felt like setting off straight away. But first he had to take care of Jim’s belongings, including his trusty old mule. He somehow had to find Jim’s mother and give her all Jim’s money – which Jim had been saving up for her all these years. And he had to find a good home for the old mule, because he definitely didn’t want to leave it in careless hands…

After a while Tom had made up his mind – he would leave Jim’s money with a trustworthy lawyer, and he would just take the old mule home with him. It would perhaps slow him down a bit, but after all he wasn’t in such a big hurry – it would give him time to think and sort things out in his mind.

Having made this decision, Tom got up. Once out of bed he quickly got dressed and went down to eat breakfast. Then he paid the hotel-bill and went off to find a lawyer.

He managed to settle this matter to his entire satisfaction at a steadfast law firm, and then he went off to buy food for his trip. He packed up the gelding and the mule with it and finally rode out of Anthony, feeling good to be on his way again!

The atmosphere in Anthony had gradually gotten on his nerves. Indeed, he was served before anyone else in the saloon, and everybody called him “sir”, and maybe this meant he was really a man now, a real one, but somehow he still hadn’t imagined it like that.

Besides, being a hero means that people expect things from you. And as time goes by and you become more and more of a legend, the expectancies grow accordingly. They grow beyond what is sensible. But if you ever disappoint your believers, you will be considered a swindler. Even if it isn’t your fault that they believed in you so exaggeratedly in the first place…

Tom wouldn’t have that problem in his home town. Even if the rumours of his great deeds ever reached it, people would find it hard to believe them. How could the awkward little boy of those pitiful sheep-farmers have grown into such a hero? Surely there must be some mistake…

It’s hard to be seen as a hero in a place where you were previously seen as a stupid little kid.

Tom might gain some respect in his home-town, the same kind of respect as the Davidsons had. The Davidsons, however respected, were still ordinary humans whom you could love or hate, admire or despise.

That’s what Tom would be too. Or would he?

After a few days Tom arrived in the town where he had first met Jim. Tom rode to the saloon.

There were two other horses in front of the saloon – a big, black stallion and a rather plain, brown mare.

After Tom had tied up his horses and unloaded them, he pushed his way through the swinging doors of the saloon and…

Stopped dead in his tracks!

He discreetly turned round and looked at the horses outside. He hadn’t paid them enough attention. There was no possible doubt – the black horse was Blackie, Jack Davidson’s proud stallion!

Jack and Theresa were sitting at a table in the saloon. It could even have been the very same table at which Tom had sat with Jim long ago (or in any case it seemed long ago).

Tom put up an unconcerned face, walked through the empty saloon and sociably joined the two siblings at their table.

“Hallo!” he said jovially, “what are you doing here?”

The girl looked away as though she wanted to ignore Tom.

Jack’s dark eyes bored into him.

Nobody spoke, but Jack’s stare didn’t waver. It was a silent challenge.

After a little while, shortly before the tension became truly unbearable, Jack stood up, cleared his throat and said curtly: “Excuse me!”

Then he walked out through the swinging doors, and soon afterwards his horse could be heard galloping away.

Now the girl turned to Tom: “And what are YOU doing here? You smell like a rutty buck!”

Tom felt like screaming at her that he really was a rutty buck. He was continuously and madly rutty, because he had never in his life managed to copulate with a female. When o when would he be relieved of this torment?

But all he said was: “I’m sorry.”

They were both silent again.

Theresa was patting the sleeve of her blouse, and Tom scrutinized her.

She had completely lost her child-like chubbiness. She looked grown up and feminine.

Her chin was graceful but protruding in a resolute way, as it always had in her childhood too. Her face was much more elongated than before, but the cheeks were still quite full and had a healthy red colour. Her lips were rather plain and thin, but when she parted them halfway, a longing sigh seemed to escape from them inaudibly…

Her eyes were as dark as Jack’s, but - unlike in Jack’s case - the look in them was clear. In Jack’s eyes there was a kind of murky depth and a permanently malicious sparkle which contradicted any friendly word he might ever pronounce. Theresa’s eyes showed depth too, but not of the murky kind, and there was no malicious sparkle in them either. Rather, the full, dark colour of her eyes expressed the sensuality that was missing from her thin lips.

She carried her hair loose and half-long, just right for a long trip on horse-back. Her eye-brows expressed the same kind of decidedness as her small but protruding chin.

Tom wasn’t sure whether he really found her pretty, but the memories that stirred in him were sweet and sent a tingling shiver across his back…

As though she wanted to start an everyday conversation, Theresa said: “How about telling me of your adventures?”

But those few words seemed theatrical and her voice sounded false, disguised. It was obvious that Jack had left his sister alone with Tom so that she would sound him out.

But Tom played along, and so he started talking, in an equally affected manner:

“One fine day I was being pursued. So what do I do? I go into my room and hang my poncho and my hat on the hat-stand. Then I comfortably settle in my easy-chair and wait. Soon enough my pursuer bursts into my room and pumps the hat-stand full of bullets. I casually swivel around in my chair, lazily lift my gun out of my lap and give him a bullet.”

The girl had listened with her chin leaning in her hand. Without removing her chin from her hand, her eyes shining with the faintest taint of irony, she said:

“Unbelievable. You outwitted your pursuer. With your cold, discrete thoughtfulness you defeated his brute power!”

Tom shook his head, slowly and deliberately, like someone who doesn’t really need to convince his counterpart but who is still sorry to see that he was misunderstood.

“Not at all,” he said. He started explaining patiently: “When you outwit someone, that means you do something special that your opponent didn’t expect. I did no such thing. I just hung up my poncho and my hat, as anyone would. I wasn’t even aware of my opponent – I just ignored him. He was a great outlaw, but for me he was meaningless. I shot him with a yawn while he thought he was pumping me full of bullets.”

The girl laid her index on her brow and held her head to the side. With an amused smile she said: “You describe your contempt for this outlaw very convincingly, but I see this matter somewhat differently – either you knew that your opponent would shoot at the hat-stand or you didn’t know it, right?”

Theresa smiled with false naivety. Tom nodded earnestly, and she continued:

“If you knew it, then that was because you had thought about it, and by thinking about it you acknowledged the existence of that outlaw. That means you didn’t ignore him, since you thought about him.”

Theresa uttered a nervous little laugh and continued:

“The other possibility is that you didn’t know your opponent would shoot at the hat-stand. In that case you were just lucky.”

Tom didn’t understand anything anymore: “What?”

Theresa summarized her idea: “As I see it, you defeated that opponent either through cunning or through luck, but definitely not through some kind of inherent superiority that would allow you to despise him the way you do.”

Theresa looked at Tom in a kind of small-girlish and at the same time provocative way. Tom was speechless – he had nothing to say to this crystal-clear way of reasoning.

He tried again and started somewhere else in his story: “When I arrived in Anthony, hundreds of men were cheering me. They came out on the street and followed my wagon. Some of them felt particularly brave when they dared to touch the corpses I was transporting. Me, I hadn’t just touched them as corpses. My bullets had caught them when they were still full of life, long before they lay piled up on that wagon like rotten cabbages. When I loaded them on the wagon, their bodies were still warm and pliable. On the way to Anthony, their beard-stubbles even still grew a bit!”

The girl had listened to the crazy story like a patient mother. Now she stretched her arms stifling a yawn, opening her mouth only a tiny bit and keeping her faint smile on her face.

“But Tom,” she said, “how could the people of Anthony know that it was really you who killed the outlaws?”

Tom didn’t speak like someone who doesn’t need to convince his counterpart anymore. On the contrary, he answered eagerly: “Nacho and his men couldn’t be killed through cowardice. If that was possible, someone would have done it long ago. Nacho and his men could only be killed heroically, as I did. There wasn’t any other way. Everybody knows that.”

Tom paused a second, then he added: “If I bring home Nacho as my prey, then I either defeated him directly, or I defeated the man who had defeated him before me. In either case I’m better than Nacho and deserve to have him as my prey.”

The girl was not impressed by these logics. She made the same slightly amused face as before, but this time some triumph was shining in her eyes: “I see a third possibility,” she said. “You might have defeated Nacho together with several other gun-men. Everybody died in the gun-fight, except you. So now you’re collecting all the glory and all the rewards for yourself.”

Tom said quickly: “If I was the last survivor, I must at least have killed the second last survivor. Else the whole thing doesn’t ad up. And if we assume that Nacho…”

Theresa interrupted Tom with a cute smile: “The second last survivor that you killed might also have been one of your own men whom you then beat through cowardice to get the rewards for yourself. You can’t prove to me that it wasn’t like that.”

Tom was startled – how could he prove that he had killed Nacho and his gang all alone?

He couldn’t! And so nobody needed to believe it, even though it was really true!

In despair he called out: “You have to believe me, I defeated Nacho in a fair fight!”

“I believe you,” Theresa assured Tom, “but you cannot prove it to me.” And she turned her shoulder towards Tom.

Tom got a hold of himself again: “And you Theresa, what is your specialty? I guess it isn’t shooting like for me!”

Theresa didn’t answer at first, and Tom couldn’t tell whether she was embarrassed because of not finding any example, or whether she had to choose from so many possibilities that it was hard to find the most striking. Tom felt it was the latter.

Finally Theresa’s astonishing answer came: “I play the piano.”

Tom flared up like a yapping cur feeling safe on his leash: “What can you do with a piano? Playing music is just a kind of self-sufficiency that doesn’t impress anybody!”

“Why don’t you wait till you’ve heard me play?” asked Theresa bravely.

“Of course!” said Tom with a shrug. “There’s a piano over there.”

“No, no, not like that! You have to take it seriously, just as seriously as your revolver!” Then Theresa looked him straight in the eye and said: “Show me your revolver first, and then I’ll play you something on the piano.”

Tom let his right hand glide down to his hip.

Slowly, slowly he pulled out the revolver. Then he laid it on the table in front of Theresa.

“So this device,” said Theresa, “comes from the shop of my father, doesn’t it? How many deadly shots have been fired with it since then?”

Tom was going to count them in his mind, but Theresa didn’t leave him time for that. She grabbed the revolver, weighed it in her hand, felt it all over (which made Tom’s body-hair stand on end) and finally stood up and pointed it at Tom. She held it with two hands, her arms stretched out, her legs wide apart in a gun-man’s stance.

Tom felt a tingling excitement in his crotch. He was being targeted, and something in him was ready to target her right back!

For so long already he had worried about maybe being impotent, about being unable to act in front of a woman. Right now, in a flash, he could tell that he was not…

He just sat there, in front of her, feeling larger than life, and finally he asked: “So, what do you want of me?”

The girl didn’t loosen her posture: “My brother asked me to disarm you so that we can arrest you.”

“Arrest? What for?” asked Tom, surprised.

Theresa answered grimly: “You know that very well – you shot two men back home. We want to bring you back, so that you can be judged.”

Bloody hell! Tom had really forgotten all about that! He was a hero now. Were they really still going to hold that old stuff against him?

He said harmlessly: “You’re forgetting your promise. You were going to play me something on the piano.”

Theresa let out a sigh and lowered the gun. She turned around and went over to the piano. Tom stood up and followed her.

She sat down at the piano, laid down the revolver and set her fingers on the keys.

Now she started playing.

The piece started with a slow trill drawing attention, then the melody melancholically went down to the lower keys.

Now the lower voice started, coming from far down and rising high up.

Then the slow trill started again, and the whole melody repeated itself, drawing Tom into its spell. It sounded vaguely familiar to him. He couldn’t quite make out where he might have heard it before. He had a vision of afternoon sun slanting in through a dusty window in a room where he was waiting for something with his mother, long ago…

In the same way as the mechanism of a steam-engine pulls a train out into the wide prairie, Tom was pulled by the simple cycle of the sentimental melody into a world of nostalgic feelings that a more complicated musical piece couldn’t have opened up for him.

Tom felt the wind of the train-ride on his face, and the trill wasn’t necessary anymore to capture his attention.

And indeed, there was no trill anymore this time. Instead, the melody drifted high up in the air, continuously supported by the rising bass.

But then it slowly sank back down nevertheless, like a long sigh finally running out of breath. The lower voice came up from very far down and swung up very high, but then it wasn’t clear what had happened, because now the slow trill started again.

Obviously the composer had taken a deep breath, but now he took up his nostalgic day-dream once again. The simple melody did another one of its rounds, supported by the rising bass with which it finally gently ended.

Now came three chords, almost hardening themselves into something dissonant, but then came a naïve little melody which, in its lighthearted gaiety, didn’t at all seem to fit with the general theme.

But then the silly little melody became more serious, swung back and forth a little moment between naïve lightheartedness and more somber feelings, and then suddenly took off in a little sprint that tore every listener out of the painful indecision through its surprising virtuosity.

The little sprint repeated itself and finally came to a standstill in the vicinity of the trill.

And so the sad trill, begging for attention, started again, and the original melancholic melody took Tom for another ride.

Tom let the music carry him and he soared in a stream of longing. It was a new kind of longing, and yet he felt it was what he had been waiting for all along. The sounds of the piano produced the longing, but the longing was directed at the pianist…

For years Tom had been seeking this girl, but only now he felt properly in love.

The sentimental melody came to an end, but this time the lower voice didn’t rise up like before but rather stayed down there. Theresa was hammering dull notes out of the piano with her left middle finger. The upper voice played a chord, but the bass kept banging on.

A new chord, then the prolog to a third one that sounded hard and cruel until it dissolved in a fourth, friendlier chord.

The dull bass became softer and lost its insistence, then it became double but stayed friendly, and the chords in the upper voice gradually retreated, marching away majestically.

The bass became single again and turned back into a dull beat. The bitter chords in the upper voice came back. The bitterest one wasn’t as bitter as last time, because an undertone was missing, but on the other hand it wouldn’t dissolve as easily either. The lower voice urged it on, and so it finally became reasonable and retreated.

The upper voice let itself drop now, but suddenly a breath of fresh energy seized the melody and it bolted like a horse gone wild. The lower voice hardly had time to support the upper one with its chords. Theresa’s right hand leaped over the keys with wild ease. Tom could hardly follow its movements! Higher and higher it went!

Theresa played the piano just as deftly as Tom handled his revolver - faster than anyone could comprehend.

The speed was inebriating!

Now Theresa’s right hand was running down the scale, and it was as if she were pulling a string of pearls through her hands, because every single note was so round and full and sparkly!

As her hand reached the middle of the keyboard again, it made a hint of the familiar trill, and then the sentimental melody took off for the last time. The harsh intermediate part had been overcome, and the sentimental melody was allowed to treat Beethoven’s piece to a gentle and melancholic ending.

Theresa looked up at Tom. She had played a piece that never fails to impress, and she could tell it had worked on Tom too.

“Beautiful,” said Tom. He didn’t know what else to say.

“Oh well,” said Theresa pretending to be annoyed, “you didn’t even really listen. You just saw the chance to get your revolver back, that’s all!”

Tom looked down at his holster. Indeed, his revolver was back in there. Tom had taken it back and put it away without even noticing.

“That’s not true,” said Tom. “I enjoyed it very much!”

Theresa’s eyes glowed, and she said earnestly: “You can bring a mighty beast to its knees with your revolver, but only if it doesn’t have body-armor. Me, I can pacify an over-mighty beast with the piano even if it has body-armor. So, you know, a piano is a mightier tool than a revolver!”

Tom didn’t quite know what to say. Theresa had a point, although Tom doubted whether she could have pacified Nacho with her piano.

And yet Tom couldn’t be sure it wouldn’t have been possible. He remembered The Boy covering up Nacho when he was sleeping - there had been a human side to those guys, hidden somewhere deep down…

Tom asked Theresa: “What is your greatest wish?” and expected an answer having something to do with musical ambitions.

Instead of answering, Theresa asked back: “What is yours?”

Since Tom didn’t know any answer either, Theresa finally explained: “I would like to be carried stark naked through town in an unbreakable glass-bubble!”

Theresa stood up and left the saloon with a monosyllabic parting word. Tom just stood there, a bit stunned, then he emptied his whisky.

After a while he felt it was time for him to find a hotel. He paid his drink and left the saloon feeling strangely self-conscious of every step he took.

 

Outside the last rays of sunlight were glowing above the roof-tops across the street and hit Tom straight in his face as he pushed his way through the swinging doors of the saloon.

Before Tom had time to look out for his horses, a voice called over to him from the other side of the street. Blinking in the light, Tom managed to make out his enemy Jack.

“Hey Tom! The time has come for you to face up to me!”

Tom was familiar with this kind of moments. He pulled a long cigar and a match from his shirt-pocket. He slowly pushed the cigar into the left corner of his mouth while lighting the match with his other hand. Without haste – even though the flame was greedily consuming the match – he brought it to the tip of his cigar. He breathed in, not much more deeply than a sleeping man, and the tip of the cigar began to glow. Shortly before the flame was going to reach his fingers he shook out and dropped the match. There, at his feet, it still glowed for a second and then died. As he let out his breath, it formed a visible structure in the evening air. It slowly drifted off high above the street, like a daydream made of cigar smoke, and then gradually dissipated. Tom periodically added new plumes of smoke to it.

Jack, facing Tom, knew very well that the cigar would go out one day and that the smoke would dissipate utterly in the end. But the thought that all this smoke would finally, in endlessly diluted form, cover the whole world, and that he would never be able to escape from it, was uncomfortable.

Arrogantly despising the whole world Tom was puffing out oversized spirits from his small lungs. A bullet from a revolver would be able to pierce those lungs, but the spirits it had puffed out would remain, spooky and unfathomable.

What did Tom care about his lungs while his spirits were floating above him?

Jack got the feeling there was nothing he could do against Tom. Tom could only win while he could only lose.

Jack bravely remained facing Tom and fought the feeling of unease the best he could.

Tom took the cigar out of his mouth, turned it around in his hand and looked at its glowing tip. He said: “You know, Jack, if you want to arrest me, you have to draw your gun.”

Jack said nothing, and Tom stood in front of him patiently.

He put the cigar back into the left corner of his mouth. The right corner of his mouth was smiling.

Jack saw the smile. The smudgy smile of little Tom, the next-door boy. Jack had never imagined that he could possibly keep that smile into adulthood!

And yet Tom had definitely grown into a man now. He wasn’t next-door’s boy anymore – he wasn’t NEXT to Jack in any way anymore. Rather, they were facing each other as deadly opponents! He was the same person, but his meaning for Jack had changed radically!

For Tom the greatest moment in his life had come – for years he had stood in the shadow of this oversize role-model, and now he had stepped out of the shadow at last and was blinking in the stark sun-light!

Jack took the blinking for a sign from heaven and laid his hand on the grip of his revolver.

This triggered the usual epileptic attack in Tom.

Jack instantly knew his mistake. He knew he was a dead man.

The hammer clicked twice but there was no recoil, no bang, no smoke…

Tom’s revolver wasn’t loaded!

Tom couldn’t understand it. As he tried to grasp the situation, a dirty smile appeared on Jack’s face.

He finished straightening up his revolver – slowly, since there was no hurry anymore – and said: “I will be able to tell everybody with a clear conscience that I defeated you in a duel.”

He laid his thumb on the hammer of his revolver.

Suddenly a lasso-loop came flying out of nowhere, seized Jack around the waist and pulled him to the ground.

Tom’s left hand flew to his belt, and his fingers slipped a bullet into his hand. He pushed the bullet into a chamber of the revolver, turned the drum and pulled back the hammer.

When Jack, sitting on the ground now, had come to his senses, Tom’s revolver was loaded and pointing at him with deadly accuracy.

“Stop!” called out a commanding voice, and now Tom saw the girl. She was on horseback, the other end of the lasso twisted around the saddle-knob, and she had suddenly materialized from behind the corner of the nearest house.

Jack left his revolver lying on the ground and stood up slowly. His dark eyes smoldered as he looked up at his sister, and he said ominously: “What do you think YOU’re doing?”

He said it slowly enough to give Theresa time to lose her composure. But she didn’t. She just yelled at her brother: “And what the hell do you think YOU’re doing? You promised you would only arrest him, not shoot him!”

Jack had nothing to say. He turned to Tom.

Tom had put away his revolver and smiled sheepishly. He shrugged and showed Jack his empty palms.

After a while Jack shrugged too and said: “Forgive me, Tom.”

“So, did you make peace now?” asked Theresa.

Jack and Tom nodded gravely.

The three of them set off towards the hotel together.

Theresa shook out her pocket and gave back the six bullets of the revolver to Tom. She had quickly and neatly slipped them into her hand and then in her pocket on the way to the piano in the saloon, and Tom had never noticed…

Her hand touched Tom’s as she handed them back. Tom put five of them back into his revolver and stuck the last one in his belt.

Now Theresa asked Tom: “Would you come back home with us of your own accord?”

“Why should I?” Tom asked back.

Theresa didn’t answer. Jack didn’t say anything either. He had a warrant to bring back Tom, and his intent had been to make himself into a hero. There was nothing in it for him if Tom came back with them of his own accord.

Then Theresa asked Tom: “Wouldn’t you perhaps like to know what became of your mother?”

Tom stopped and Theresa and Jack turned around and faced him.

Theresa was right, of course. Why hadn’t Tom even thought of asking about his mother?

He was going to now, but Theresa continued anyway: “Our father is paying her a pension and lets her live in the little house for free.”

“Why does he do that?” asked Tom, surprised.

Theresa answered: “He feels guilty because of you. You tried to challenge him, but the sheriff got in between and you had to flee. My father feels he acted like a coward towards you. He feels guilty because of that.”

Now Jack spoke, half-heartedly: „Yeah, you see, Tom, that’s why I wanted to bring you back dead... Because actually my father wants to testify that you shot the sheriff and the other man out of self-defense – if the matter is deliberated in court, you would almost certainly be acquitted.”

And then Theresa said: “Tom, come back home with us! Then you don’t need to flee from your own shadow anymore and you can start a normal life again!”

It sounded as if Theresa were actually begging him, so Tom was moved and agreed.

 

The next morning Theresa, Tom and Jack got under way. Jack was riding on his big black stallion, Theresa on her brown mare, and Tom was between them, like a captive, on his Bess. But he wasn’t a captive, and he carried his gun. Behind them they led Jim’s mule and the big gelding with the luggage.

Tom was going to see his mother and his home-town again soon, and he looked forward to it. He had Theresa to thank for that. He kept having to look at her as she rode next to him, leaning slightly backwards in the saddle, her chest self-confidently arched forward, and again and again he thought to himself that she was a great girl.

They didn’t talk much. They enjoyed the fresh morning air and rode at a steady rate.

Towards midday the heat came, the landscape became monotonous and lifeless. The ground was reflecting the heat, roasting the riders and their horses from both above and below.

The horses dreamed of a soft, juicy meadow.

Theresa dreamed of the full bathtub she had left behind at the hotel.

Jack thought of lunch with a frothy beer.

But Tom just saw the uniform, rocky desert, and he had his first doubts about whether he was acting sensibly. Was it smart to trust the two siblings and follow them home?

Tom felt more and more uncomfortable next to them. Theresa meant well, he was sure of that. What Jack thought no one could tell. But how would the marshal see the matter? Would he see it Theresa’s way? Or would Tom, after endless promises and various lawyers unrolling the case for him again and again, end up being… hanged?!!?

It was a relief from his thoughts when he spotted three riders in the distance.

You never know what to expect when you come across another rider in the prairie. The easiest is not to get within gunshot of each other. If you have business with each other, it will always seem safer to do it in a town.

But the three riders ignored this unwritten rule. They came towards Tom and the two siblings purposefully. The shadow of fear spread itself out over Tom and his companions.

The relief Tom had felt a minute ago was gone. Now he felt more uncomfortable than he had ever felt before. Not even in his worst times in the midst of Nacho’s men had he felt quite like this, it seemed to him…

It was Theresa’s presence that made all the difference. Had he been alone, he would just have waited for the three strangers stoically.

The three riders fanned out and galloped towards them from three different directions. They stopped their horses sharply when they reached Jack, Theresa and Tom.

Now they stood there, three lonesome riders surrounding three other lonesome riders.

Tom cursed himself for not having told his companions that they should put some distance between themselves, just as their opponents had done when they had fanned out. Except that it would have meant leaving Theresa to face one of the strangers alone. But as things stood now, Tom and his companions were crowded together, easy to keep an eye on, while their opponents were all over the place, unmanageable even for Tom.

Tom could only see the one in the middle who was standing directly in front of him. The two others were on either side. They were so far apart that Tom could never shoot them all three before getting shot himself. He couldn’t even keep an eye on all three at once!

One of them could distract him and another could shoot him in the meantime. It was that easy! Tom, who was the one who had killed Nacho and his whole gang, would now be finished off by three of the most ordinary small-time outlaws, the kind who haunted the prairie because of being too cowardly to attack a bank!

Just because he had let them get him in the middle!

Yet maybe this was fair, after all. The glorious Nacho had been shot by a snot-nosed kid who had run off from home, after all (because that’s definitely what Tom must have looked like to him). You can be the greatest hero, and then death catches you where you would least have expected Him…

Tom was aware that this thought might be one of his last.

He felt Theresa’s presence next to him and was afraid for her. He felt strange and his thoughts turned into colourful visions. He didn’t hear anything when the stranger facing him started talking. The stranger’s face was like the crust of a loaf of bread. There were two raisins that had been pushed into the dough to figure the eyes. The mouth was just a cleft that had allowed the dough to rise in the oven…

The nose was a piece of gristle with two big holes out of which long hairs were poking out. The whole rind was studded with small bristles. The smile was totally empty, as if it were cut into a pumpkin.

In broken English he said: “Well, my friends, what are you doing here? Don’t you know that there are dangerous outlaws around here?”

Smirking, he turned to one and then the other of his companions: “Isn’t that so?”

Then he turned his dark eyes on Tom again and said laughing: “Maybe we should accompany you to protect you? Where are you headed?”

As he talked, he snatched his hat from his head, as if in greeting, performed a hint of a bow, bringing the hand with the hat down to his hips…

When the hat covered his right hand, Tom immediately knew what it meant. He drew his gun and shot the man, turned to Theresa’s side and shot the other man there and then let himself drop to the ground as he heard the heavy report of another, large-caliber gun. When he looked up, trying to aim his gun at the third man from between Bess’ legs, he just saw the third man’s empty horse standing there. The man was lying at its feet, motionless.

Tom slowly got up.

„Are you hurt?“ asked Theresa anxiously.

“No,” said Tom, “I let myself fall off on purpose.”

Now he saw that Jack was holding his big revolver in his hand. A thin wisp of smoke was curling up out of its barrel. Jack had shot the third outlaw and so most probably saved Tom’s life!

Theresa, Jack and Tom looked at each other in wonder.

Theresa had witnessed her first shoot-out.

For the first time, Tom had been saved by someone else. And, what’s more, someone who had once been his worst enemy!

You couldn’t tell what Jack felt, as usual. He didn’t say anything when they started off on their way again.

 

The rest of the way was uneventful. And then, one day, in the evening, as the sun was just going down, the three travelers came past the signboard announcing their home-town!

They came past the cemetery where Tom’s father had only recently been buried. Then came the small school-house where Tom and Theresa had sat at their little benches… Jack too, but he had been among the bigger kids.

Then they were in the main street among the town houses.

So Tom was back in the narrow confines of what had been his whole world for twenty years. Now, as he came back from his big adventures in the wide world, it all seemed to have shrunk. Everything seemed to be so small – small, but also neat and endearing!

Tom felt his heart cramp and uncramp – at last it knew what it was beating for!

Night came on fast, and the bustle in town was quickly coming to a rest. The three travelers suddenly felt sweaty and dusty from their long trip. This wasn’t how they wished to present themselves at anyone’s door!

It was Theresa who suggested: “Let’s go down to the lake to clean up first!”

Jack agreed and Tom even found it a good idea. So they went down to the lake-side, unsaddled the horses, brushed and washed them, and then it was time to wash themselves as well.

Jack said: “Men on this side, women on the other!”

Theresa replied: “It’s almost dark anyway. No need to separate!”

“As you wish,” said Jack, but he still went across the little headland over to the side he had declared to be the “men’s side”. So Theresa and Tom stayed back alone with the horses who were plucking a few stalks of grass here and there or drinking from the cool water. The surface of the lake was as smooth as glass and gleamed weakly in the dying light.

Tom had already taken off his shirt. Theresa was unbuttoning her blouse.

“Are you sure you don’t mind?” Tom mumbled so quietly that Theresa didn’t need to hear it if she didn’t want to.

“We always did it like that in the past too, remember?” said Theresa.

“And what about the unbreakable glass-bubble?” Tom asked with his normal voice, and Theresa called back, as she ran to the water: “I don’t need it when you’re there!”

Tom had been fussily unbuckling his belt, but now he looked up, and what he saw was Theresa, nothing but Theresa, because there was nothing on her. He dropped all his clothes and plunged into the water after her!

They played and splashed a while in the shallow water. Then they raced till the other side of the lake. They rested a bit there, sitting next to each other in the soft sand, their feet still in the water. After a while Tom laid his arm over her bare shoulders. It seemed perfectly natural to do that. With his toes he stroked her foot. She laid a hand on his knee. Together they watched as the last traces of red disappeared in the west.

It was time to swim back. They let go of each other and dived back into the coolness of the dark water. When their heads broke the surface again, they swam abreast and talked a bit about the character of their horses.

As Tom climbed out of the water behind Theresa, he mused how beautiful the human body is. It is as nicely shaped as the body of a noble steed, even though it walks upright on two legs.

It’s the clothes that take away this nobility from the human body.

Tom particularly liked the transition from the back to the curvature of the buttocks – it was so elegant! Each buttock actually already belongs to the corresponding leg, and the hole between them – without which no creature can live - is discreetly hidden between the joints that couldn’t be grown together without a cleft anyway.

Theresa dried herself, dressed up, and the magic spell of the common bath was over. But she was still Theresa, and Tom felt an urge to run over to her and hold and kiss her. He didn’t do it. He wouldn’t have known how to or whether it could possibly have been acceptable or not…

Theresa was now wearing a pretty even if a bit formal dress. Tom dressed up in some more elegant clothes too that he had bought not long ago, and then Jack came along quite elegantly dressed as well. Theresa brushed through Tom’s hair with her hand, because he obviously hadn’t noticed that his mop of hair looked like a haystack. After this the three of them looked neat and fresh and ready for a party!

Earlier they could have been mistaken for dangerous outlaws coming to plunder the town. Bathing and putting on nice and clean clothes was just a superficial change, but it symbolized something deeper – indeed, real outlaws wouldn’t have gone to such pains. Cleaning up was a proof of the good intentions of these three travelers. It had taken the scary wildness out of them.

They took their horses by the reins and started off on their way to the mansion of the Davidsons.

 

The three travelers were welcomed at the door by Theresa and Jack’s mother whom Tom hardly knew by sight, unlike the rest of the family, since she had always spent most of her time indoors. She was a complicated and somewhat overdrawn woman. She made surprised sounds when she saw Theresa and kissed her like a teddy-bear. When Jack came in, she became ecstatic. She embraced him like a little kid, even though he was much bigger than her. When Jack could loosen himself from her at last and introduced her to Tom, she seemed taken aback. An inconstant smile flickered on her quivering face. Tom didn’t know how to behave towards her.

“Tall you’ve become! Beautiful you’ve become!” she finally exclaimed and let Tom in.

Mr. Davidson was just coming down the stairs. He affectionately rubbed the nape of Theresa’s neck with one big hand and hit Jack’s shoulder with the other.

“Nice to have you both back!” he said in his droll manner. His personal principle of treating everybody with a patronizing joviality didn’t allow him to show any kind of embarrassment towards Tom. So, with a broad smile he said: “Good evening, Tom Miller!” Then he added with a jocularly faked bad conscience: “You forgive me, don’t you?”

Jack said quickly but not very loudly: “What should he forgive you, dad?” The malicious sparkle, that Tom knew so well, was in his dark eyes again.

Mr. Davidson ignored the question. “You forgive me that bygone misunderstanding, don’t you, Tom?”

Tom only nodded and said: “Good evening, Mr. Davidson.”

Mr. Davidson led the children into the living room.

“You stay for supper of course, don’t you, Tom?” he asked.

Tom answered he would like to see his mother first. Mr. Davidson hit himself on the brow with the flat of the hand and of course found Tom’s wish completely natural and self-evident. He called for the family’s coach to be made ready, so that Tom could go and fetch his mother who was of course cordially invited too.

And so Tom let himself be driven to the small house where he had lived for twenty years.

Before he had time to prepare inwardly he was already standing in front of the door of his old life, while behind him the magnificent coach of his new life was waiting for him. He knocked on the door, which felt incongruous since he had gone in and out through this very door for twenty years without ever knocking.

It was dark and he felt that his mother was perhaps afraid of nightly visitors, so he opened the door a crack and called in: “It’s me, Tom!”

Now he heard running footsteps, and then his mother tore the door open. She didn’t seem able to be happy straight away – it was too sudden.

“It’s you!” she said, shaken, and then she asked anxiously: “Is everything okay?”

Tom was surprised how disconcertingly old his mother seemed. First he couldn’t say a word, but then he bent himself over her and whispered: “Everything is fine again, for good!”

He entered the paltry home and looked about himself. Even though it was very small it also seemed very empty. The handicraft his mother had been working on was lying on the kitchen table. It was hard to believe that the atmosphere that had reigned at this very table every evening had ruled his life day after day for twenty years. It was hard to believe that his whole life had taken place in these narrow surroundings, even though it had been a life full of love, hatred, sorrow and joy like any other life!

Tom entered his room that was little bigger than a horse’s stall, and in which he had lived all his wildest dreams for twenty years. The bed was freshly made, and his few belongings, toys and clothes, were neatly laid out. Tears of emotion came to his eyes when he saw that.

“I’ll cook you some soup!” said his mother who couldn’t keep still anymore. Tom had a hard time making her understand that Davidson’s coach was waiting for them outside.

Finally he led his nervous mother out of the house, and the coachman helped her into the coach without a comment.

During the short ride Tom had to answer all the questions she asked in confusion. Tom was afraid he didn’t manage to give her a very clear picture of how things stood now and why.

The coach came to a halt at the front door of the Davidsons’ mansion, and the coachman helped Tom’s mother climb out. Mr. Davidson came out of the house to greet them, and she behaved towards him like a faithful employee. Tom hated to see that.

But soon he forgot about it, because the evening turned into a sparkling feast. Good wine and candle-light, Theresa’s smile through the dancing flames, meant only for him, made him happier than he had ever been before.

It was already dawn when the coach finally brought Tom and his mother back home. Tom staggered to his room and trustfully lied down in bed. He was already practically asleep when his mother came to the side of his bed, bent over him and gave him a kiss on the brow.

Now that Tom was in love, all kisses seemed sugar-sweet to him. He effortlessly slipped into a blissful sleep.

 

Tom’s first thought as he woke up the next morning was for Bess. He stood up and greeted his mother, just as he had done every morning for twenty years. He was surprised himself how fast one is back inside old habits. Luckily it wasn’t unpleasant – there was a holidayish atmosphere to it today.

As his mother prepared breakfast, Tom went over to the Davidsons’ place where he had left Bess the evening before. The morning walk reminded him of old times, when he went to school. All in all they hadn’t only been unhappy times, he had to admit. The beautiful mansion of the Davidsons came in sight. Further off Tom saw the corner of the house where he had often met up with Theresa so that they could walk to school together.

Like every other morning for twenty years, a light, frizzy smoke was rising into the still air above the house of the Davidsons. It was the only sign of life. Higher up in the sky the smoke formed a wafer-thin cloud that was mixing with the smoke from all the other houses. Associated like this the plumes of smoke took on a tremendous size and sailed across the endless prairie in which the tiny houses of the little town were crouching, huddled up together at the lake-side… Tom had a vision of this, as if he could fly.

Every morning, when Tom had walked to school through the awakening town and when the day was still fresh and dewy, he felt the soul of the town, embodied by the thin but endless smoke that arose through coffee-making. The animosity between certain neighbours seemed ridiculous in the face of this bonding infinity.

Tom arrived at the stables of the Davidsons and greeted the farmhand who had been the coachman the evening before. He found Bess in the stable together with the most beautiful horses of the property, and they were all eating from the finest hay that had just been freshly spread for them.

Mr. Davidson came along with a pipe in his hand and greeted his farmhand with a nod. Then he saw Tom.

“Good morning, Tom!” he called out. “Surely you’ve come to get your horse?”

They shook hands and Davidson behaved as though he was delighted to see Tom. Then he said that he would call up a meeting for the whole town at one o’clock in the afternoon in the saloon. Tom should come too, and then they, Davidson and Tom, would explain together publicly how it had happened that the previous sheriff got shot in that big misunderstanding some time ago. After that public statement Tom would be a full-fledged citizen of the town again.

Tom thanked him, and then, as Davidson made his rounds of his property, he saddled Bess. As he rode home he went over the possible form the public explanation would take in his thoughts. The small house of his mother came in sight. A thin plume of smoke was rising from its chimney into the morning sky too and Tom looked forward to breakfast. Bess went towards the house all naturally, even though it wasn’t clear whether she was happy to be home or just thinking resignedly that her old life would undoubtedly start again.

In front of the house Tom jumped off Bess and led her to the stable which his mother had cleaned every day, even though it had not been in use for some time. Tom brushed her down caringly as he had always done ever since she was his, and then he went into the house to have his own breakfast.

In the early afternoon Tom harnessed Bess to the milk-wagon and drove to the saloon with his mother. The saloon was already pretty full when they arrived. The atmosphere was merry. School mates from the past came over to Tom, shook his hand, tapped him on the shoulder and wanted to hear if all that had been said about him was really true.

They were all proud that the greatest gunman of all times was one of them.

At one o’clock sharp Mr. Davidson and the new sheriff came to the saloon. The sheriff stood up on a table in front of the bar and held up his hand, asking for silence. Then he greeted all those who were present, introduced Tom and Mr. Davidson, and then followed a long speech in which he explained how his predecessor had unfairly intervened in a squabble between Mr. Miller and Mr. Davidson, how Mr. Miller was forced to defend himself and how he had to flee, fearing that he would be seen as a murderer. But in the meantime he had proven his worth, and now followed an enumeration of his heroic deeds. The whole town cheered, and Tom turned quite red.

„Does anyone have anything to ad to this verdict?“ the sheriff finally asked, and his pouting mouth, half covered by his drooping grey moustache, made it very clear that he didn’t expect anyone to answer, and that he didn’t want it either.

And yet a voice arose out of the crowd, a high and thin voice that belonged to a tall man dressed entirely in black. He wore a black tie and he hadn’t taken off his black hat. He was about a head taller than the people around him and thus stood out from the crowd. In his right hand he held a short horsewhip, and he let it glide sensually through the fingers of his left hand. On either side of him a cowboy stood, each with his thumbs hooked into his belt, apparently employees of his who had accompanied him when he brought his cattle to town.

“The defendant shot my brother. All my brother did was to try to help the sheriff,” said the black man in his twangy voice. “My brother was obviously the only real man in this town,” he added and looked around himself with contempt.

The sheriff stayed calm. In his rough, deep and warm voice and his Southern accent he asked: “So what do you demand, sir?”

The black man dropped his horsewhip and his hand glided down to his belt. A beautiful black revolver appeared, turned around in his fingers a couple of times and landed in the holster again.

The sheriff hadn’t even had time to bring his own hand down to the grip of his gun. This man was fast!

“I demand,” he said, “that the defendant faces me for a duel.”

This started off a commotion in the crowd. The sheriff wanted to say something, but Tom interrupted him. “Any time you want!” he called out.

“Then let us go outside!” said the black man with overdone friendliness and solemnly marched out of the saloon. Tom followed him through the crowd that was cheering and beseeching him. He didn’t give it any mind and went out into the street.

They marched down the street in opposite directions. When there were about a hundred feet between them, they turned around and faced each other.

The black man slowly, deliberately pulled on white leather gloves.

Tom stuck a cigar in his mouth and slowly, deliberately lit it. The rim of his hat was covering his eyes. That was lucky, because they were a bit moist. Smoke rose from the cigar. Tom sweated a bit.

Tom had already shot many men, including the great Nacho. He shouldn’t be nervous. He knew he could do it.

And yet it was different now, because he felt there was really something at stake. In the last few days Tom had become hopeful, and so now there was something he could lose. He waited in vain for the super-natural carelessness to flood him that he had always been able to count on in similar situations in the past…

The black man’s hands hovered above the two colts in the symmetrical holsters. He was grinning, and his eyes shone!

Tom’s lower jaw trembled, as though he were counting tenths of seconds. The cigar started wobbling in his mouth. His cheeks glistened with sweat. His hand went closer and closer to the grip of his gun.

The white hands of the black man swung downwards, as if he were a bird taking off.

Tom’s automatisms took over. His revolver-hand darted forward white-knuckled. There were three reports. Then the smoke drifted away and Tom saw the black man contorting himself in the distance, falling to his knees, staring emptily, until he finally dropped dead.

Tom walked over to his victim as if in a dream. His eyes wandered over the dead body. He held his revolver up to his nose and took a quick sniff, as if to convince himself that it had really been him firing the deadly shots.

He was talked to from behind. He lifted his head a little bit and slowly started turning round, dragging his feet through the dust.

The crowd had assembled behind him, and now they all clapped!

Tom looked down at his revolver still hanging in his hand. Then he let it sink into its holster and let it go at last.

He felt tears welling up in his eyes.

Luckily Theresa appeared out of the crowd and pulled him into her arms. He buried his face in her shoulder, and then she led him away by the hand as the crowd just cheered louder!

“Will you marry me?” he asked her, and she said: “Yes.”

                                 

Later Tom became the father of many children and the owner of the largest ranch in the region. He lovingly cared for his family and the community in his home-town, and although he remained handy with a gun till practically the end of his life, with advancing age he developed an increasingly strong sense of fairness and justice.

 

 

Part 3

The Nightwatchman.

 

As you can perhaps imagine, I was pretty sick of the Wild West by now. I went back to my big boulder just outside of town and moved forward in time once again. I didn’t know exactly where I wanted to go, but in any case I wanted to find my way back to the world I knew.

I reminded myself that I was a ghost now, and as a ghost I would probably never really see the world in the usual way ever again. I could only see it the way ghosts see it, even if I went back to my time.

So what was I going to do now?

I wondered who would attend my funeral. So I flew back to Europe and back to my time. I found myself again, went through the episode of my falling through the gap between the highway-bridges once again, and soon I was hovering above my body in the morgue where I had last left it.

And now what?

Would my girlfriend turn up at my funeral? Would she shed a few tears for me? How long would it take her to find someone new? Would it be someone a bit like me? Or someone radically different? Did I really want to know all that? Had I ever really loved that girl? Did I really want to gloat over the few tears she might cry over me now?

No, I didn’t really want that.

My parents would be at the funeral. Did I want to look in their heads and see exactly what they felt about me? Wouldn’t it just make me feel guilty? What kind of a son had I been for them anyway? They had made me, raised me, put up with me for all those years… I owed them everything. The least I could have done for them was to return the compliment of raising and putting up with kids and so to give them a load of healthy and boisterous grandchildren. Instead of that I just went and fell through the gap between the highway bridges! What could they possibly feel about THAT? Nothing very good, I’m afraid…

So I decided not to attend my funeral after all, or not just yet in any case.

And when the clanking of the cooling chamber door started, and that boring nightwatchman came in again, I decided rather to follow him for a while…

 

Fred was a nightwatchman, and now that he came to thinking about it, he realized that he had done this job for at least ten years. It had started as a summertime occupation back in his student-days and then, as everything else he tried to undertake failed, it gradually filled his whole life, never to be replaced by anything more rewarding.

Fred walked around the buildings, checking all the windows, shuffling his feet through the high, uncut grass on the backside of the block, where nobody except fools of his kind ever set their feet. It was bitter cold and he felt like pulling his neck into his collar, lowering his head away from the biting wind and proceeding without looking either to the right or to the left.

No windows would be left open in this weather, except if they had been forcefully opened by a burglar of course, but Fred knew that these things never happened, not here anyway. Fred's only purpose was to get bar-codes read into the control-watch he carried at his belt. At the end of the night, the data from his control-watch would be transferred into a computer which would then check if he had passed all the points in his nightly round-trip where a sticker with such a bar-code had been placed.

Sometimes, when Fred felt really bad, he just went from one sticker to the next, without bothering to check anything. Yet he didn't usually allow himself to do that, because it was common knowledge that a nightwatchman might occasionally be watched by one of his superiors.

Somebody might be hidden in those dark bushes back there, and so Fred had to at least pretend to be watchful.

In all those past years Fred had been checked out by a superior only half a dozen times, but if he ever got caught unawares, dreamingly and blindly walking from one sticker to the next, he would probably lose his job immediately (and he needed it).

So approaching any building he would use his heavy high-beam torch along the facade, and the window-panes would reflect back at him. If the reflection ever missed out, the window seeming just like a dark hole, then that would mean it was open. He would then try to remember on which floor and which room it was, so that he could close it later on, when he finally entered the building.

It wasn't enough just to shine upon the ground-floor row of windows -they could look closed and yet yield under pressure, so they had to be mechanically tested. Fred would therefore briskly walk along the bottom of the building, giving a little push against each window-pane, and if one of the windows unsuspectedly yielded he would almost get his arm caught in the window-frame while he walked past. Usually he would mumble "bloody idiot!" when this happened, and since he was always alone this curse could only be directed at himself.

One day, when one of the windows opened as he smacked his hand against it, he heard a big bang. When he came up to the window from the inside to close it, he saw a big flower-pot lying broken on the carpet. Loose earth was scattered everywhere. He felt like leaving the mess as it was, but he took pity on the flower, which was in full bloom, lying pathetically on the floor, the colourful, passionate petals crushed beneath it, and so he set it back onto the window-sill, carefully leaning the long stalk against the wall. Having done this he felt he couldn't leave the rest of the mess as it was and cleaned it away as best he could, quietly cursing to himself.

After having walked around the whole block, checked all the windows, Fred would finally be allowed to go inside the building. Once inside he would have to continue walking, and at an irregular, tiring rate too, unlocking each door, having a quick look inside, swishing the beam of his torch along the floor and the desktop, carefully trying to avoid letting it fall upon the windows so that it couldn’t be seen from the outside, then locking the door behind him to walk a few paces to the next.

Sometimes Fred would walk through several corridors without checking a single room, since no superiors could follow him into the buildings without being seen. But then there was always the risk of complaints going to the main office in the morning because some forgotten machine hadn’t been switched off during the night and the nightwatchman was obviously not doing his job.

Usually the rooms would look the same every night. There would be the same posters on the walls, the same kind of mess on the desks, and even the individual smells of the rooms would remain the same.

Many years ago Fred had entertained himself by imagining what kind of person might have been working in each deserted room, and he felt the thrill almost of a paleontologist coming upon a promising discovery, looking at the remains of a life that he could picture without it being aware of him in any way.

Nowadays Fred simply felt jealous of these people who came with their cars straight to the building (not having to leave it hidden somewhere), went straight inside through the doors (without walking around the whole place first) and made straight for the door of their office which they opened with a familiar key they needn’t select among a huge, heavy bundle like the one the nightwatchman was carrying. Then they shamelessly switched on the light, not caring if anybody could see it from the outside, and comfortably settled themselves at their desk to remain seated for as long as they liked...

It’s no use dreaming about these things. Besides, those guys might have problems too, right? Maybe, if they ever met a nightwatchman when they stayed at their office late, overloaded with bureaucratic work, they would enviously watch him merely walking along, just opening and closing doors, his thoughts free to wander, and finally going home with an empty head, unstressed, his job finished and nothing to worry about...

But then, Fred's thoughts weren’t free to wander. Suppose he was quietly whistling a little melody, and every now and then he would get annoyed at some door improperly closed, at some key that would remain stuck in the keyhole, at some button that had to be pushed at the other end of a huge, messy table over which it was hard to reach, specially with all the bundles of keys hanging from his waist...  Of course he would have to interrupt his whistling on all these occasions, and when he resumed it, he would take it up at the beginning of the unfinished movement. Then he would get annoyed again before finishing this movement and have to start all over, so that in the end there would be just a few notes, endlessly repeated till it got so boring that he had to give up whistling. Maybe he would try playing with some pleasant thoughts instead; but whenever he managed to collect his thoughts, they would be disturbed by some random and unforeseen annoyance, so that he would have to collect them again, again and again without actually ever getting past this point.

Boredom was thus inescapable. And while boredom in ordinary life is something that can usually be tackled with some effort of will, inventing little games, dreaming or in the worst case by just letting the mind go to sleep, this enforced boredom Fred was subjected to just got deeper and deeper every day until he had his weekly holiday, a momentary relief that kept him alive.

An occupation which keeps the mind busy without ever using all its resources is more boring than no occupation at all.

It is hard to remain watchful when this watchfulness is never rewarded by the discovery of something new, stimulating and interesting. Fred had actually told one of his superiors as much, asking to be put on a new job so that he wouldn't have to walk around and through the same buildings every night. But the answer was sort of futile and not very much to the point, so that Fred didn't even remember it. Of course he knew why he wasn't taught another round-trip -that would mean accompanying a colleague and being paid for learning while one man was really enough for the job.

When Fred had first started working for "Securitas", as this nightwatching business was called, it was for a particular and straight-forward reason -he wanted to own a car. It didn't take him long to spot an old, American car that was for sale. It was a '78 Ford Mustang with a huge bonnet, low, worn-out bucket seats, big, tough-looking wheels with five-spoked wheel-caps and an engine with a healthy, throaty growl sending vibrations up Fred's spine when he first test-drove the car, making him crazy for it.

Needless to say, the car was rather unpractical, taking a lot of space on the road while offering little loading-space, using up too much petrol and easily getting stuck in the snow. Besides, it wasn't all that powerful -little Japanese hatch-back cars with fuel-injection and multi valves ran a good deal faster than its stolid, carburetor-fed V8 would ever allow it to go.

It didn't take Fred long to feel regretful about the lack of power. His car wasn't such a runner after all. He would get upset when he was overtaken (which was seldom enough since he was a ruthless driver) by a real sports-car, forgetting that this other car must have cost from five up to ten times as much as he paid for his old Mustang, which, considered in this light, wasn't such a bad performer at all.

Some day Fred decided that performance wasn't so important and that it was all in the looks. He loved the shallow lines of the car, swelling up from behind, running fluently along the roof, towards and along the broad, low-slung windscreen, suggesting a wave, and then merging into the bonnet, running along it till they suddenly ended, forming a fierce brow to the rounded head-lights. Between the head-lights the grill looked just like the foam-crown of the wave, and upon it was the emblem of a galloping horse, its mane and tail trailing majestically behind it...

The car was kept in shiny, metallic blue, a deep, marine blue. When speeding on the highway Fred felt like the part of a natural, awe-inspiring phenomenon, like a wave rushing along the surface between earth and sky, ready to engulf and submerge anything wanting to check its progress.

While walking across a parking-lot as a nightwatchman, Fred would look at all the dew-wet cars, wondering if any of them were as beautiful as his own. Then he would eventually come past his Mustang, wetly glistening in the dim light of the lamps across the street, standing there as if it had merged out of the world at this spot and was still growing, unmoving and yet seeming to surge forward with relentless power, then Fred would know that this was his car and that there couldn't be another car for him.

For  the next few minutes after that he would feel happy.

Of course the doubts would come up later on. Had he really bought the car best suited for him? Had he paid a fair price for it? Was it really the uttermost beautiful car possibly imaginable? Walking along endless dark corridors, the beam of his torch swinging in front of him, opening and closing doors as he went, those thoughts would haunt him painfully, and the images of brand new cars, far from affordable anyway, would mockingly flash past his inner eye, reducing his poor old Mustang to an outdated rust-bucket which of course it really was.

And yet all modern cars look virtually the same, licked to a blank, unemotional blob-shape by today's aerodynamic standards. They have power, they have safety and comfort...

Ah, but it is a very different feeling to be sitting at the wheel of an old Mustang, behind a bonnet that extends all the way to the horizon, feeling the vibrations coming from eight cylinders under the tough, sweat-drenched leather-covering...

Working with strong hands along the steering-wheel, whose diameter comes very close to the width of female hips, the car slashing through the curves, the far-off end of the bonnet, far ahead of the front wheels, seeming to drift sideways across the road, as if the car were floating above the bitumen...

Then easing the pressure of the hands on the wheel, the steering self-adjusting after the curve, feeling the leather running through his hands...

All of this is very different in a modern car. The steering-wheel offers no resistance at all, feeling just like a dead branch, a cut-off limb, responding so easily, so passively, to any forces with which you act upon it, that it is almost disgusting, like having sex with a corpse. The bonnet is so short, ending in front of your nose, that when looking downwards from your sitting position, you see the road in front of you, so that while driving you almost feel threatened by it, coming towards you without being first swallowed by the car.

So Fred should be happy -there couldn't be another car for him.

Yet every winter there came the problem of snow. The Mustang would act like a heavy, slithering, uncontrollable mass where small, front-wheel driven cars rode along just like wagons on rails. Besides, snow means salt on the roads, which means splotchy patches on the bitumen, which  means that the underside of the car passing over them gets sprinkled with that ghastly mixture of salt and blackened water, which means rusting -rust, the most deadly threat to any old car...

Every year, when winter came, Fred would wonder how he could possibly spare his car. He had a small motor-bike for which he cared less than for his car. Another advantage of the motor-bike was that it wouldn't ever get stuck for good, since it was always possible to pull it out from snow-drifts by hand.

The obvious problem with motor-bikes, besides the discomfort in rain and snow, is of course that slithering usually means falling over and accidents more often have worse consequences than just material damages, even at comparatively low speeds.

So Fred often wondered if he should buy a second car just for the winter. And yet, if he was going to buy a second car, it would have to be something really powerful, something he couldn't afford just now. So in the meantime he kept wondering and suffering.

The buildings Fred had to watch belonged to the hospital, among them the morgue, and it was no big deal to walk across from one to the next. In fact most of them were connected by subterranean tunnels with air-flow tubes passing overhead. The air-flow tubes were used to send all kinds of samples from one lab to another, sometimes even at night. Fred would hear them banging around corners and then swishing past above his head, if ever he went into the tunnels.

But some of the buildings Fred had to watch didn't belong to the hospital-complex and were a bit further off, though of course in the same region.

In the Securitas-business, those nightwatchmen who had to drive around a lot during their round-trip were given a car for the night. The others were given a motor-cycle. Fred would have been entitled to a motor-cycle, but none of his colleagues ever went on this round-trip with a motor-cycle because the hospital-complex was quite far away from the main office where the keys, radio and the rest of the stuff were handed out in the evening and had to be handed back in the morning. Everybody took his own private car.

So did Fred. Thus in the middle of the night he had to take his car to drive a few blocks, and just when the engine was beginning to warm up a bit, to let it stand in the cold again.

It is not so good for the engine to be set to work while it is still cold. Ideally it should be left to idle until it is warm before driving away. Fred usually did this or, if he didn't have time, would drive very slowly for the first few minutes. He made it a point of honour never to take the car for distances of less than ten kilometers, so that the engine ran at its best temperature for most of the time.

As a nightwatchman Fred was forced to use his car for small distances, forced to forget about his point of honour. In the middle of the night he would come up to his car and painfully, due to his inadequate attire, scramble into the low bucket-seat, arranging all his bags and equipment on his lap. He was always scared of marking the seat-covers by rubbing the fancy brass-buttons and shoulder-straps of his uniform against them while he settled himself.

Then he would turn the key. He would listen to the high-pitched whine of the self-starter, a shrill, horrible noise like the alarm of a clock calling to duty. He would wobble his foot on the gas, sending little spurts of fuel into the engine till it finally, uneasily awakened, coughing and growling.

He would loosen the hand-brake, setting his huge beast free, loosen the clutch, stir up the beast by pushing the gas, and lead it away, muttering and mumbling.

He would drive away as slowly as he could, the engine on the verge of dying, the whole car shuddering from time to time. Eight cylinders take a bloody long time to warm up.

And yet, after several minutes of running, the noise and vibrations would become smoother. The needle of the temperature gauge would have risen past the blue mark. Slowly, but certainly, life would be dawning inside the huge steel structure; it would be making itself ready for hard driving, ruthless acceleration, swallowing the distances...

And just when this was happening, Fred would park the car, switch off the lights and the engine, pull the hand-brake (tying up his beast, like) and leave it there, letting it down after awakening it, for another half a dozen hours in the cold.

Of course Fred was worried because of  the inappropriate use of his car, which would eventually lead to shortened life-time. This might mean he would have to get the engine replaced if by then the body hadn’t rusted away. Maybe by replacing it with something more powerful..?

This was an excellent topic to be wondering about for half the night.

Whenever Fred sat at the wheel of his car he forgot all about these intellectual thoughts. He just plainly and simply felt guilty of stirring up the car’s desires when it was peacefully asleep -kicking it to life, promising a fun-ride and then, as soon as it was going along with it, letting it down.

What about leaving the car at the main Securitas-office and taking the motor-cycle for the round-trip?

But then the car would be cold for the way home at the end of the night.

Usually, when it was time to head back to the office, the car would already be half warm having driven a little bit through town just before. Fred would cruise along slowly for a little while longer, and then he would hit the gas, roar through the dark, deserted streets and arrive at the office with the tinge of excitement still echoing in his crotch, hand in the keys and all the other stuff with a feeling of elation, walk back to his car all lightly and free, then race home with a careless, drowsy smile on his face.

While if he headed back to the office on the motor-cycle, he would be roosting on top of the narrow seat for many minutes, the sharp whine of the small motor all around him, the cold wind hissing past his ears, and advancing at a depressingly low speed...

Fred rarely had any bad dreams, but he had many unpleasant ones. In one of them he was sitting on such a motor-cycle, the motor screaming at him, revving at its highest, and yet the cycle hardly moving at all, slowing down continually, till Fred had to jump off, the speed being insufficient for him to maintain his balance. Then Fred looked up and saw an endless stretch of wide road before him. The cycle had disappeared and he was alone with his heavy nightwatchman-attire...

All these painful preoccupations about the car were of course, as one might say, just the tip of the iceberg. Fred's unhappiness was far deeper.

Long ago he had had dreams, and he had looked upon his future as a wide landscape, the mist of dawn still hanging over it, and he had looked upon it for the first time from a high mountain he had climbed from the other side. All had looked promising. The land was asleep, but ready to be awoken by a magnificent sunrise. Fred had taken a deep breath and made ready to climb down into this promising future.

Then he had sunken into the mist, which became denser and denser. At first he hadn't worried too much -the sun would shortly clear it away. To his right and left bright corridors would occasionally open, but he wasn't too eager to follow them because he wanted the whole thing and still believed in the sun.

Now he knew that he had passed all the bright corridors, and the mist had become a heavy, opaque, filthy, smoke-laden vapour that no rising sun would ever clear away. The sun might actually have risen already, it might be past midday -he wouldn't know, he couldn't see...

Fred had had the usual dreams of a fulfilled life -he had started studying Medicine with some vague idea of helping people, and he hoped he would some day find a person with whom he would build up a family.

Then the years had flown past, studying had become more and more tedious while nothing else seemed to happen, the smoke had become so thick that it not only blinded and irritated his eyes but actually offered resistance to his movements. At some stage he had tripped into his nightwatchman job and never got up again. He was lying there in the mud and wondering about his car.

Whatever the real problem was, it was floating so far above Fred's present day-to-day experiences that he couldn't address it. To bring it within his reach again he would have to solve some minor difficulties first -collect his thoughts, clear his mind of the overwhelming boredom, escape from his present situation that was holding him a prisoner.

In order to change anything, to be able to evolve in any way, Fred must first free himself from whatever was holding him down.

The only means of escape and freedom Fred knew about and which had ever brought him anywhere close to a feeling of satisfaction was, of course, ...his car.

So while Fred intellectually knew that his problem lay further off, that his unhappiness was rooted far more deeply, he was nevertheless genuinely and sincerely worried about his car.

 

There was this red lamp glowing on the control-panel. Fred had already seen it the night before and rang up one of the numbers for technical problems. The bored voice at the other end had said that he would further the information.

Tonight the little red light was still there.

There were two possible scenarios. Either the problem was meaningless and would be taken care of in its own good time, in which case Fred would simply mention the disturbance in his notes or even ignore it completely having already furthered the information yesterday. Or, in the other possible scenario, the problem was very meaningful, had been fixed yesterday thanks to Fred's vigilance and had reoccurred today, in which case he would have to ring up the bored voice again. When in doubt that was what a nightwatchman was supposed to do -in a polite and correct manner further the information. Be it the same piece of information every night, he had to further it without the least signs of impatience and without feeling offended by the disagreeable manners of people woken in their sleep.

Yet Fred didn't feel at all like writing a clear note, finding a phone, piling out his bag to find the number for technical emergencies for this particular building and selecting the number with one hand while holding up the torch with the other. Halfway through the number the booklet would shut itself because he didn't have a third hand to hold it open. When all these problems were overcome he would read out to the tired guy at the other end from his note-pad which lamp was glowing and on which panel it was doing so. Then the tired guy at the other end would answer that he would further the information and thank-you-very-much.

The prospect of all this was so boring that Fred decided against it. With a sour smile on his face he pictured himself being accused of overlooking important disturbances. He would answer that the red light hadn't struck his mind as unusual since it had already glowed the night before. He would even go before court to make the office see that it was bad for a man to have to do the same thing all the time.

Of course he would simply lose his job, his explanation accepted as an admittance that he wasn't suited for such a responsible position.

All of this swirled through Fred's mind, while he really knew that the lamp would still be glowing tomorrow, possibly even the day after, that nobody cared about it and that it would somehow disappear as suddenly as it had appeared.

So Fred didn't even mention the lamp in his notes and felt pretty sure that he would never hear of it again.

He shut the door behind himself and locked it, trying to forget about the control-panel with that one red glow where there should only have been green lights.

This winter he would have to put snow-tyres on his car.

At this very moment the red lamp would still be glowing.

Last winter he had waited so long to get them fitted that there hadn't been any snow left to use them for their rightful purpose.

This damned lock always stuck! The key must be totally worn! Why didn't anybody complain? Maybe he should complain himself...

The red lamp would still be accusingly glowing back there behind that door.

Besides, the winter before that there hadn't been any snow at all, and since he was going to avoid...

To the right, to the left, nothing special here. The special thing was back there -that damned red light.

This winter he would avoid driving in the snow.

Open the door -the whine of machinery- close the door.

So he wouldn't need any snow-tyres.

End of the corridor, shut the door, select the new key.

One winter the snow had taken him by surprise and he had to leave the car at the bottom of the hill, because his summer-tyres had no grip till the road was thoroughly salted.

Now that he needed the former key again, he could just select it by touch, because it still felt warm. There is nothing worse than holding the torch in the armpit, turning over keys in your hands looking for the distinctive marks and usually finding those you don't want over and over again...

Salt makes cars rusty and dries out slugs by osmotic pressure if you sprinkle it over them. Poor slugs, all wrinkled and shriveling up...

Fred saw tiny sparks in the dark when he punched the key into the key-hole. Thank God the lock turned easily -it was the right key.

What about a healthy, swelled up and athletic slug, glistening all over, crawling up a girl's vagina?

Fred was climbing up some stairs. He knew the number of steps and never stumbled except when he started to think about it.

If salt was all that was needed, girls needn't feel threatened by men any longer. Besides, salt also burns in the eyes. So it not only finishes off old cars but also men.

Fred came to the top of the stairs and was selecting the next key.

Maybe a man can still rape a girl even with salt in his eyes. His slug, all he really needs, can't be affected much by salt, since it’s not a real slug anyway. Besides the girl wouldn't get a chance of sprinkling it there, unless her vagina was able to secrete it.

Here we are, the door is open.

Salt is very good on meat. Wouldn't do to eat meat without salt.

Talking about meat -there must be some fresh meat in the fridges here. There usually is on Sunday-nights -car-accidents during the week-end, when people are less sensible...

Maybe they had gotten their snow-tyres fitted the day before and today they were lying in this fridge...

Snow-tyres aren't a life insurance.

Fred would get his fitted next week.

And all this while the red lamp would still be glowing down there in the basement.

Fred always hesitated before this door. A big, glistening metal-door it was, too. It had a lock to which the usual key fitted and a great big handle. Once the handle had been pushed down, the door could be pulled open. The door would resist a bit, the isolating rubber-bands reluctant to separate, like lips joined in a farewell kiss. It would let go with a little smack and then, the resistance overcome, yawn open freely, sighing like an awakening creature.

Inside it would be dark and cold.  The inrushing warm air would condense and make the beam of Fred's torch visible as he scanned the shiny, empty tables (or should they be called beds?). Further off there might be a bundle lying on one of the tables, something strangely irregular lying in this square and sterile place, covered by a blanket.

Fred would walk into the fridge, driven by curiosity. Maybe the feet would be sticking out from the bundle, just a pair of ordinary, naked feet, perhaps a bit unnatural in colour (too yellow) and with a waxy quality that was slightly disturbing, not like feet on a beach.

Fred would walk up to the bundle and take hold of the sheet with his finger-tips, then without hesitating any longer, he would uncover the head of whoever was lying here.

A pair of cold eyes would be staring up at him. He would be taken aback for a split second, then he would examine the face, unshaven, wrinkled, expressionless, a shocking face maybe, but with nothing to say. Perhaps the mouth would be open, and Fred would see the tongue lolling in there, grey and dried-out, still securely resting in its nest, but dead like its surroundings.

Only the eyes would still be conveying some intensity, a frozen intensity that could be blotted out with one blow. The eyes could have been pecked out without altering their gaze, as if they were still desperately holding on to something. Something that might have been before them a while ago, and that would never reappear to break the spell.

So the spell would never be broken. It would just lose its significance and merge into the more general mystery of the past.

Sometimes the bodies in there would still be uncovered, brought in during the night perhaps, and left there just as they had been found.

One night Fred had entered the fridge to find a man lying on one of the tables. He was wearing jeans and a worn-out jumper. His curly, dark hair was in a mess around his tough-looking face, his unclean mouth gaping wide-open and his eyes staring into the ceiling. Fred bent over him and was inspecting the gashing wound across his forehead. In the profound silence, perfect save for the soft whine of the ventilation overhead, he could distinctly hear the man's wrist-watch ticking off the seconds.

There was no need to go inside the fridge. If there was an anomaly it would show up on some control-panel somewhere. Fred had proven to himself many times that he could bear the sight of cadavers, and it hadn't done him any good. Why should he go in there now?

Then Fred remembered the red light that would still, at this very moment, be glowing on a control-panel somewhere in the basement. Fred had no idea what the red lamp meant and what the control-panel was generally monitoring. It might possibly have something to do with this fridge. Since he was here in front of this door now, he might as well check it out.

So he turned the master-key in the lock, pushed the handle down and pulled the door open.

There were two people in the fridge, but Fred had eyes only for one of them – indeed, she was uncovered, completely naked and lying on a glistening, spotlessly clean metallic table in the middle of the room.

The air was cool and there was the usual soft whine of machinery. Fred was about to close the door and resume his lonely walk when he felt that since he was here he might as well have a look at the woman. He entered the fridge and half-closed the door behind him in order not to waste too much of the cold.

He walked over to the corpse, wondering why she had been undressed but not packed up. Maybe she had been found naked.

She was a beauty with long, smooth legs merging into strong hips, the stream-lines moving unbroken from there over a flat belly, slightly less in width than the hips, flowing over firm, small breasts and converging towards the neck. Fred positioned himself at the foot-end of the table and held up his torch, let the light-beam glide up and down along the body, his view extending from her toes to the tip of her chin.

Fred had never before had a woman like this for himself, and he guessed that she wouldn't have let him come up so closely in her lifetime. Only yesterday the chances of getting close to this woman would have been approximately zero. She would have walked past the slow-moving nightwatchman very swiftly indeed, having better things to do, and if he ever made a move on her, she would have sneered at him, then brushed past him with a polite and icy "excuse me...".

Now she was lying here motionless and unprotected and Fred could admire her for as long as he wished, study her body as closely as he liked.

Her eyes were staring up into the ceiling, as these corpse's eyes always did.  Fred had seen this before and was used to it. Her lips were parted as if she had been panting. Fred had moved up between the rows of tables and was looking down at her. She was inert, paying no attention to him. In that sense she was as far away as ever.

He saw that she had a stabbing wound above her left breast. Else her body was flawless. He felt like finishing the job, taking a knife and punching it into every part of her body, teaching the world that whatever he couldn't understand and get for himself he would destroy.

He looked at the wound more closely and suddenly had a strange feeling of familiarity. The wound itself wasn't familiar -it was just another disgusting stabbing wound. Fred had seen them before, but they never struck him as particularly familiar.

There was something else, half chopped up by the wound, a birthmark, and Fred knew that he had seen it before.

He left the fridge feeling very thoughtful. He felt strangely reluctant to close and lock the door behind himself. He was about to walk away when he turned back.

There was a little anti-chamber next to the fridge.  It contained a desk and a swivel-chair, and recent records were kept there. Usually some delivery-notice concerning fresh entries would be lying on the desk. Fred decided to go and have a look. He unlocked the door and stepped into the small room.

As expected the usual form was lying on the desk, hurriedly filled out by some guy with a miserable hand-writing - name and address of the victim, date of entry and a list of belongings (even underpants and socks would usually be listed). The list was empty so presumably the corpse had been found naked.

Fred looked at the name and it told him nothing. The address seemed just as unfamiliar - some street in town Fred had never heard of before.

Fred left the room and walked away, trying to mind his own business and empty his head of the thoughts which were beginning to churn in there, gaining momentum.

He remembered a day many years ago, just after he had moved out of his parents’ home into a flat of his own. He had had great expectations - having no mother to fuss over him any more he saw himself becoming a daring and dashing young man. He now had a stable home-environment that wouldn’t be affected by his undertakings in the outside-world. No one would be trying to read information off his face inside these four walls of his own. Whatever happened he would now be able to come home and forget about it.

He was sitting at his window watching the people coming and going in the street. It was not quite two o’clock in the afternoon and he had to go to work at six in the evening. He had plenty of time.

There was this girl outside, a school-girl, somewhere between ten and twelve years old, doubtlessly on her way to school. She was walking along not very quickly, dreamingly playing with the shoulder-straps of her bag. Fred had an immediate craving for her.

Following his impulse he went out to meet her. There she was, innocently walking along, playfully and unconsciously showing off her sensitivity, quite unaware of the effect she had on Fred.

Fred walked up to her and said hello. She smiled up at him and confidently greeted him as an adult. Possibly this girl had had no major bad experiences with adults and believed that they did whatever they did because it was the right thing. She didn't realize that Fred might have addressed her for reasons of his very own.

So she was a great believer in adults! And she obviously saw Fred as an adult, his being in his early twenties making no difference.

Fred asked her: "Do you have a minute?"

She was plainly a bit puzzled by that: "Yes..., but a minute for what?"

Fred made an earnest face: "You see, I make advertisement photos for a big company. I have to find a young girl like you to wear a pair of brand-new jeans. I think you might be just the person I need. Posters of you will be hanging all over town."

He was playing a very dirty trick on her, but he had plainly got her interested. She flushed a little, forcefully swallowed down the saliva accumulating in her mouth and tried to say something.

"But..., but I have to go to school now..."

Fred nodded thoughtfully. "I know" he said, "but this is really important, you see. I will write out an excuse for you to hand over to your teacher."

This settled the matter. Fred didn't even need to say that other girls would be glad to be in her place. She was plainly going along with him.

"And where..?" she asked, suddenly a little scared.

"Oh, just up there." said Fred, successfully dismissing the very last of her reluctance.

He took her up into his flat. In the stairways she became very eager to talk. "All over town!" she said.

"Yes," he said, "and you'll have an impertinent little smile on your face, standing there in a pair of brand-new jeans that nobody has ever worn before!"

She could hardly wait for him to unlock the door of his flat.

He took her into the flat, shut the door and told her she would have to take a shower first. She was a little surprised by that, but he showed her the bathroom and gave her a fresh towel out of the cupboard. Then he left her and went into the living-room.

He let himself fall into his one comfortable chair and a moment later he heard the water turned on in the bathroom. He knew that she was naked in there, standing under the gushing water in his home.

He was plainly doing something that he couldn't have allowed himself to do at his parents' place. Nobody would come and see what was happening. As long as he kept her from yelling he could do whatever he liked to the girl.

And yet he felt strangely at loss about what to do next.

After a while he heard the water was turned off. On impulse he stood up and walked to the bathroom, entered without thinking and saw her standing there, all wrapped up in the towel, her wet hair glued to her face and shivering a little. She looked up at him, not at all suspiciously, but questioningly. He smiled reassuringly, went up to her and rubbed her down.

He told her he would have to feel her vertebras to see if she was suited for the photos. He gently lifted the towel a bit and confidently let his fingers find their way down her spine, pressing a little here and there, as if he were playing the piano. His face was very close to her face, and she was looking at him with big, hopeful eyes.

He reached the bottom. His hand brushed past her buttocks. He didn't look at her. Her front was still covered by the towel and he had only felt her back without seeing it.

He gently closed the towel round her back again. "Come now." he told her and led her out of the bathroom. He led her into the living-room and, drawing the curtains, told her to lie down on the couch.

She was lying on her back, still wrapped up in the towel, trying to relax but shivering again.

He went up to her, kneeled down next to the couch and told her to close her eyes. She did as she was told and he uncovered her, pulled the towel away completely and flung it away.

Surely she must realize that something was wrong by now. She was shuddering uncontrollably and holding her eyes tightly, almost desperately, shut.

In a very calm and kindly tone he asked her if she felt cold. She only nodded. He laid his hands upon her belly and started to knead her slender body, softly but purposely. He felt the shuddering subside under his strong, warm hands.

Then he lovingly followed the slight curve of her hips and worked his way down along her legs. She was completely relaxed now, almost hypnotized.

"Do you feel better now?" he asked warmly.

"Yes..." said a sleepy, tender voice.

He stroked her legs absent mindedly, then decided that he could have a good look at her unashamedly, since she had completely abandoned herself to him. He touched the spot between her legs, where the first tufts of pubic hairs were appearing, and, asking her if it hurt, gently parted the folds of her skin.

"No..." she said dreamingly, and he put his fingers here and there, exploring the nooks and crannies, pausing and asking her again, waiting for her answer and then going a bit further.

Gently pressing and stroking, squeezing and kneading, he was having a wonderful time, but then, as if some realization had suddenly hit him, he became self-aware and ashamed of himself. He felt the heat mounting into his face and knew that he couldn't go on.

He stood up quite suddenly and almost ran to the bathroom, but then his steps faltered and he felt weak. He sipped a few drops of water at the tap (his mouth was feeling very dry), and looked at himself in the mirror, barely recognizing himself.

He saw the neat pile of clothes she had left lying on the washing-machine, took them up and brought them into the living-room, flung them onto the couch next to her feet and told her in a voice that was surprisingly matter-of-fact and unaffected, that she wasn't suited for the photos and that she'd better get dressed.

Then he left her and went into the kitchen where he sat down at the small table. Now it was he who was shivering.

He heard her walking around in the living room. He stood up with a jerk and rushed out to her. She was looking very upset and bewildered. He gave her some money, said he was sorry and led her to the door. She stepped out, he again said he was sorry and closed the door on her, even locked it.

That was all that ever happened between him and that girl. He never saw her again and never even heard of her. He knew her name was Maria because she had told him, and he remembered the birthmark on her left breast.

 

Fred drove up to the courthouse lying in the midst of a peaceful park with many trees. He parked the car inconspicuously next to the Japanese four-wheel-drive of the caretaker. He scrambled out of the seat, banged the door shut, and while he stood there, rearranging the bundles around his waist, he approvingly admired his low-slung Mustang behind which the caretaker's car looked extremely crude and bulky.

A soft rain was dribbling down, and though Fred couldn't feel the wet through his cap and his uniform, he could smell the dampness, and when he held up the torch to illuminate the facade, shining little droplets started to dance in the light-beam.

Fred illuminated the top-row of windows, and when he looked up, feeling the water on his face, some droplets stinging in his eyes, looking through a corridor of light in which myriads of shining little blobs were drifting towards him, he felt for a fleeting moment that he was moving upwards, rushing through a narrow galaxy of small, dazzlingly twinkling stars.

Then his eyes automatically focused on the grey, imposing facade of the elderly building with its tall windows sunk deeply into its thick walls.

He was walking now, his torch scanning the facade. The windows were all closed (of course they would be) and there wasn't any light in any of the rooms.

He walked up the broad stairway to the main entrance and checked the three doors between the two massive pillars. He didn't check them too harshly, because they were of course under alarm and it would be rather embarrassing if the nightwatchman set off the alarm.

He walked back down the stairs and resumed his tour around the building.

The big parking-lot occupying the whole space in front of the building was empty save for the Mustang and the box-like car of the caretaker. If there were any cars, Fred would have to take down the number of their plates and leave a note for the caretaker. One night Fred had come up behind a car that was parked in the shadowy far-side of the big entrance stairs. He was just about to write down the number when he realized that the front-seats were occupied. Now of course formal identification was unavoidable. He walked up alongside of the car and shone the light straight through the driver's side-window. The occupants had bent down, obviously hoping that he wouldn't see them and move on. Fred came up to the car, holding his torch at a progressively steeper angle, till it shone down into the thus blinded eyes of the young man at the wheel. Fred bent down and knocked at the window. The man, his face all white in the dazzling bundle of light which held it fast, meekly opened the window. There was a girl next to him, but Fred didn't care to have a proper look at her. He kept his torch well-aimed at the man's face. Then he said, in a tenebrous, dry voice, fully aware that he must appear to them as an indefinable, shadowy presence behind the blazing light:

"Good evening... Do you have any business here?" As though he didn't know what they had come to this dark, hidden spot for.

The guy was trying to evade the light with his eyes. "No..." he said shyly.

"This place must be considered as a private property." said Fred. "I have orders to take down your names and the number of your car. Naturally you will get a fine shortly."

"But..." said the guy, hopelessly blinking in the light, "I didn't know..."

"If you leave now, I will let you go." said Fred.

The guy immediately sat up straight, started the car saying thank-you and, while Fred said "Good-bye, sir", he drove off with his girl-friend who hadn't uttered a sound all the while.

Fred had been bull-shitting about the fine. He had no idea what was being done with the numbers and names he collected. Possibly they were just filed away for future reference if anything turned out to have gone wrong during the night.

And yet he shouldn't have allowed himself to let these people go. If a superior had seen him talking to somebody and he had no names to show, he would be in trouble.

Today there was nobody. The parking-lot was deserted.

Fred came to the corner of the building, where he could hear the water gurgling through the drain-pipe coming from the roof. It always struck him as a most lonely sound, possibly because it could sometimes be confused with the babble of human speech in a foreign tongue. Fred did feel lonely and would have liked to join such a pleasant sounding conversation.

At the foot of the building there was a trench, about five meters deep and two meters wide. Fred didn’t know its exact purpose - perhaps to give some light to the basement (there were windows down there) and possibly to make all windows on the ground-floor inaccessible. Fred had orders to check out the trenches, because there might be bombs lying in there. So he would shine his light along the bottom of the trenches and look for some suspicious object.

Naturally heaps of rubbish and dead leaves would have accumulated down there, and besides Fred had never seen a bomb and had no idea what it would look like. So basically he just looked down into the trenches with unseeing eyes, his thoughts elsewhere.

Fred was about to turn around the corner. He had a last look at the mighty stairs leading over the trench to the main entrance.

Some winter there had been a thin pellicle of ice, formed during the night, on some of the steps, and Fred had almost slipped. He recalled thinking of taking a few corpses from the morgue, naked corpses with bruises and gashing wounds, and realistically, artistically, laying them out across the stairs...

And what would have been the sense in doing that, Fred now wondered? Surely it was not very funny. It was pure maliciousness.

Of course nobody believed that Fred would do a thing like that. He didn’t believe it himself.

Corpses were often the only mates he met within nine hours of work, and though he needn’t worry about how to present himself to them, they still somehow managed to upset him. He had believed that by having close looks at them he would harden himself against his emotions, but somehow that wasn’t the way it worked, and instead of becoming insensitive to them he became more and more reluctant to go and see them. And yet they had become very much part of his life.

That woman for instance...

Maria being just a school-girl ten years ago, it was quite plausible that she would be in her early twenties now. The birth-mark definitely had looked familiar and it was in the right spot too.

The name on the delivery-notice wasn’t Maria...

The woman was Maria, there could be no doubt about it. Possibly Fred was the only living man to know that she wasn't who she was supposed to be.

Possibly Fred was the only living man to know that Maria was dead...

Somehow this realisation was scary. And yet, what business of his was this whole thing? He hardly knew Maria and he didn't know the other woman she was supposed to be at all.

Plausibly Maria was visiting that other woman and got killed in her flat. The other woman then disappeared and when Maria was found it was automatically assumed that she must be the owner of the flat.

As soon as tomorrow some relatives would be invited for a formal identification of the corpse and the mistake would become evident.

From then on the problem would be to put a label on the unidentified corpse. Fred couldn't be a great help there, because all he knew about Maria was her first name.

The more he thought about it, the more he managed to convince himself that he could in no way contribute to the whole business. Whatever information he held was completely useless and futile.

He was at the back of the building now, checking a couple of doors. Behind him there were some large trees, and although there hardly was any wind he could hear their leaves rustling. It was a confident sound, like the deep breathing of a fearless giant in his untroubled sleep. Fred felt tired. He would have liked to stop walking, lie down next to the giant and let his mind drift off into peaceful realms of oblivion.

But he was the nightwatchman. He had the noble task of watching over other people's property and the fruits of their efforts while they were taking a well-earned rest. His watchfulness allowed them to confidently close their eyes and let themselves be carried away into the land of sweet dreams, knowing that he was, for the time being, taking care of the harsh realities of life for them...

He had taken over. For the next few hours he was the legal representative of the place.

Fred walked on.

The woman in the fridge.

It was Maria.

“Do something about it!”

Fred actually turned around, it sounded so real. He had definitely heard a voice. It was inside his head. He wasn’t altogether surprised. He had finally gone insane. It had to happen. It was almost a relief. He half expected to hear more of it, but everything remained quiet for now…

Some other night he had heard a strange, squeaking noise, endlessly but not too regularly repeated. It seemed to come from somewhere further off in the dark. It sounded like a squeaking door being opened over and over again, but that didn't make sense. Or was it the agonizing voice of some wounded man or beast lying under a bush? After a while Fred concluded that it must be a pump of some sort, but what was being pumped at this time of the night he couldn't imagine. He had left the place without solving the mystery.

A few nights later he had heard the noise again. This time it was clearly coming from the trees overhead. It must be a bird of some sort! Fred had excitedly shone the light up into the branches of the trees, trying to find the spot where the noise came from. And suddenly he had found it, a stout little fellow sitting on a branch. It looked like an owl. It was turning its head from right to left and walked a few steps along the branch, trying to move out of the light, but Fred followed it with the beam of his torch.

It opened its small beak and uttered its harsh little scream.

From then on Fred knew what the noises were.

That was in summer. Today there were no more noises except for the gurgling of the water down the drain-pipes.

Fred walked across a patch of grass.

Last summer he had tripped over something on this spot. The thing had made hissing noises. It was a hedgehog.

Some other night the beam of his torch had also randomly fallen upon a hedgehog. It seemed to be totally untroubled by the light. Fred had softly approached it and taken a close look. It was feeding on a huge slug, making deep breathing noises as it was doing so. The front part of the slug was still moving, its antennae feeling their way along the grass-blades, while its rear-end was being chewed to pieces by the cute little snout of the hedgehog. Fred was rather shocked by this, but then again, what had he imagined? That the hedgehog would first jump up at the slug's throat and squeeze the life out of it before eating it, like a lioness killing an antelope?

It was too cold for hedgehogs now. They would all be sleeping in a pile of forgotten dead leaves somewhere.

Fred came round to the entrance of the caretaker's flat. There was an intercom next to the door. If Fred had seen anything unusual he would wake up the caretaker.

The job at the courthouse consisted only of walking around the outside of the building. Fred didn't even have a key to enter the courthouse. Usually he came here twice a night. The first time would be around ten o'clock, and if there were any lights burning in some of the rooms it would most certainly be because of somebody still working there. Thus it was rather silly to warn the caretaker about them.

The second time Fred came back here would be at about three o'clock. If the lights were still burning by then, that would obviously mean that they had been forgotten. If Fred awoke the caretaker about them the latter would usually be annoyed at not having been told earlier. Thus Fred would mostly ignore the forgotten lights (if there weren't too many of them).

Today there weren't any lights at all. Everybody had gone home early. Only fools like himself would still be walking around in the cold at this time of the night...

Fred got back to his car, scrambled into the seat, sighed as he started the engine and drove off.

 

Fred was walking through to the second part of the night now. That meant that he would visit most of the buildings for the second time, but in less detail. All the important things would already have been checked, and so he would just have to walk around, reading bar-codes into his control-watch here and there.

Of course he still had to walk around the exteriors of the buildings before being allowed to go inside, but this time it would be enough to flicker the light at the windows to make sure they weren't broken without having to test them manually.

To minimize the distances Fred edged around the corners as tightly as possible, almost bumping into them and scraping his uniform.

He was thinking what a stupid thing to do this was, since anybody smart enough would get the idea and might wait with a stick or metal-bar behind the next corner. A good bang over the head would send Fred into unconsciousness (especially since he was barely conscious anyway in the second part of the night), and it would then be very easy to take all the keys from him.

The relevant keys for the building would possibly already be separated from the rest of the bundle (that should make things easier), and a smart guy might even think of stealing Fred's uniform. If he then managed to walk around with the tired-out gait of a typical nightwatchman he would be as inconspicuous among the buildings as a goldfish in a pond.

In fact, Fred himself had thought of playing this dirty trick on one of his colleagues. Knowing the whole place by heart it would be very easy for him to find what he wanted, pack up the car and drive away without any alarm being raised.

But Fred was scared of being recognized by some office-boy who would for some strange reason of his own come to his office in the middle of the night. Of course Fred would never be suspected in the first place, but the other guy might later remember having seen him around when he was supposed to be on a holiday.

Fred had practically no memory of faces, but he knew that other people did. He often recognized people by their reaction to him (a very bad habit for a nightwatchman, who is supposed to positively identify whomever he meets). Any burglar would simply have had to say "Good evening!" in a jolly friendly way, and Fred would have identified him as the person whose name was on the door of the office that happened to be robbed out that night.

But faces weren't the only thing Fred didn't notice. He felt quite capable of walking through a deep puddle in the middle of the corridor, his shoes making splotchy noises, without the thought that anything was wrong ever entering his mind.

The other reason why Fred didn't try robbing the buildings, in effect making the most out of his job, was that there wasn't any cash lying around. The only things worth stealing were computers, and then he would have had to sell them. A tedious and risky job...

Perhaps Fred almost hoped that he would, someday, be hit across the head. For years he had been telling anybody who would listen that he couldn't bear his job, that it weakened his mind so much that he couldn't think of undertaking anything else... But as long as the job didn't actually get on top of him nobody would worry too much about him. After all, he was doing just fine, there was nothing obviously wrong with the way he worked and he was financially independent. That's what being an adult is all about.

But if he got hit across the head, people would start wondering. Perhaps even his parents, with whom he maintained a very loose, barely existing contact, would start thinking things over once again and feel guilty for what they had done to him. Though what that would concretely be and in what way their feelings of guilt would possibly help him Fred himself didn't know.

Perhaps suicide was a better alternative.

Fred had fantasized about this a lot.

The idea would be to shoot himself. He didn't carry a gun as a nightwatchman, but he owned one personally. He might take it with him and then lock himself up in the fridge. He would hide his equipment, uniform and all his clothes among the spare sheets, then lie down on one of the shiny tables, his gun hidden underneath him, then shoot himself through the head from behind.

The hourly radio-message being missed out, his superiors would eventually come looking for him. They would look all over the place, possibly helped by the police since he might have been trapped by some burglars...

They would even look in the fridge, but it would take a long while before anybody thought of taking a close look at the naked corpse innocently lying on the table. Fred wished, even though he was dead, he could see the shocked face of his superior looking down at him and finally realizing the full truth...

In many rooms there were machines, computers, fax-receivers and the like which were meant to run through the whole night. They all bore big yellow notices saying: "DO NOT SWITCH OFF!"

Nightwatchmen being so much conditioned to switch off everything with a power-button would of course occasionally switch off even these machines. If they noticed their mistake they might switch the machine on again, but then it would possibly have lost its memory or something like that. Occasionally these situations would give rise to complaints and severe reprimands of the involved nightwatchman.

Fred had thought of entering a room with many of those machines, switching them all off and shooting himself with a "DO NOT SWITCH OFF"-sign hanging around his neck.

He wondered if anybody would get the joke.

Anyway, there he would be lying, the keys spilt all over his body, eyes wide open and a silent reproach staring out of them...

Of course Fred would never really do such an insensible thing with his gun - he might lose his shooter's license, and that thought was unbearable.

He was coming up to the door from where he had started off on his exterior round-trip. It was time to enter the building and he took out the key.

There was a small van parked near the entrance. It hadn't been there earlier. This was the entrance where corpses would be brought to the morgue or collected from the morgue. They would usually be brought in a small, grey, box-like truck from the main hospital-building and taken away in elegantly elongated station-wagons with black shutters across the back windows. It was impossible to imagine that the colourful little van standing here now could have anything to do with that kind of business and Fred was asking himself what it might be doing here.

The front doors of the van opened and two men climbed out. They walked to the door and stood in front of it. Fred approached them seemingly unperturbed but holding on to his torch very tightly.

"Good evening." he said, but the men didn't answer.

One of them was very tall and good-looking. If he had combed his hair and was wearing less sloppy clothes he might have come straight out of a female teenager's pillow-fantasy with his tall, well-proportioned figure. And yet there was something else missing, Fred now thought, to make him into a male sex-symbol - the sparkle of intellectual competence in the eyes that he lacked. He had, in fact, a very blank, almost bored look.

The other guy was stout and mean-looking. His general appearance was dirty. He seemed quite nervous, but this nervousness must have been a natural state for him, because there was no evidence that his surroundings were affecting him (he didn't react to them). He was plucking at his sleeve and his eyes were flickering as they scanned Fred. But as Fred came closer these movements actually subsided.

The two men were still standing in front of the door, the tall one looking incuriously at Fred. Fred would have to brush past them to get to the door.

"Okay, now." said the stout fellow, and Fred realized that he was pointing a small-caliber pistol at him. He almost backed away.

So it had finally happened!

Fred had always thought that this kind of things only happened in the fancy-talk of his superiors and in his own fantasy. Somehow he felt unprepared.

And yet he wasn't as scared as he might have been. The pistol aimed at him was very real to him, and although it was a small-caliber he was aware of the damage it could do, especially at short-range. But it didn't have the surrealistic aurora it would have had for the average shitter who sees guns as a symbol of power in all the movies and never actually ever touches, let alone fires one.

Fred had handled all types of hand-guns, semi-automatics and revolvers, right up to the fantastic 44-Magnum, a revolver whose recoil  could supposedly (so he was told) break your arm if you fired it while holding it stiffly. He had fired fifty rounds with such a weapon, and he still remembered slipping the big, heavy cartridges into the cylinder and the sharp smell of burnt powder after each shot.

Fred identified the pistol that was aimed at his belly now as a Berretta, caliber 25, and he suddenly had a great urge to stay alive. It would be pitiful, he felt, to die of a 25-bullet.

"What do you want...?" he asked slowly.

"Open the door and lead us to the forensic medicine department." answered the tall guy calmly, in a manner suited to sensible questions.

Fred let go of the key he was holding in his hand, loosened all the other bundles and let them fall all together, clattering, onto the ground.

The tall guy looked incuriously down. The stout guy's eyes flickered, but his gun-hand remained steady.

Fred was standing there, foolishly looking from one to the other, like a small boy who has just filled his pants.

"Come on now," said the tall guy, slightly impatiently, "take up the key and open the door."

Fred bent down, and as he did so, his hand, reaching out for the keys, brushed past his side and felt for the emergency-call button on his radio. As he pushed it the radio made its little electronic noises, then came the buzz signaling that the call had been registered at the main Securitas-office.

"The office is calling me..." Fred said innocently.

"Give me that radio!" said the tall man with a note of desperation in his voice, pulled out the radio from its clip and flung it away.

The radio flew across the parking-lot and Fred heard the rustle of leaves as it landed among some bushes further off.

Now at least the office was warned. Having got the emergency-signal they would try calling him back. Getting no answer they must assume that something was wrong and the superiors would come looking for him.

Unfortunately they wouldn't know where he was. He very much doubted that they would have the good idea of looking at his notes of the previous nights to find out where he might be by this time. Anyway, a nightwatchman wasn't supposed to be predictable and only burglars knew that he was.

He picked up the enormous heap of glittering keys, held it in one arm like a baby, selected a key at random with his other hand and tried it on the lock. Of course it was the wrong key.

"Ah..!" he said for the benefit of the two guys waiting for him to open the door.

He tried another key which didn't work either.

He looked helplessly up at the tall guy and said meekly: "I lost the damn key..."

The tall guy grabbed him by the hair, turned Fred’s throat upwards, and a knife-blade flicked up in his other hand. He laid the cold blade on Fred's throat, then against Fred's cheek and whispered into his ear: "Don't you play these tricks on us. If the next key doesn't fit, I'll cut your ear off, understood?"

Fred nodded sourly, feeling his scalp, in the grip of the man's huge hand, sliding over his scull.

It didn't take Fred long to select the correct key. Being a master-key its blade was cribbed with lines and holes making it very recognizable. He pushed it into the lock, turned it round and opened the door.

He entered the building, the two men following closely, but, bloody hell! he would show those guys that he wasn't just an ordinary nightwatchman!

As he led them to the lift he put away all the keys except the ones he would need.

The two ruffians had brought no torch. Possibly the idea occurred to them now. The tall one grabbed hold of one of Fred's shoulder-straps to make sure he wouldn't suddenly dart away and leave them in the dark.

Fred pushed the lift-button, and the door opened with its fine-sounding hydraulic hiss, revealing the blank and brightly illuminated interior of a lift big enough for a bed (or rather coffins in this case).

As a rule, nightwatchmen were not supposed to take lifts. Since they were often alone in the buildings they visited, being caught in the lift could be a major problem. The portable radio was not a reliable means of asking for help, because radio-waves sometimes had difficulties emitting out of lift-shafts.

Fred assumed that a major power break-down was very unlikely in buildings belonging to the hospital and thus, in spite of the rules of his trade, this lift was familiar to him.

They entered the lift and he confidently pushed the lowest button. The lift started moving downwards. Forensic medicine was on the top-floor, there even was a notice next to the top button saying so, but the two ruffians never noticed.

The door opened and they were in the basement. Fred led them along a dark corridor, past many doors behind some of which the whine of machinery could be heard.

At the end of the corridor there was a big, electrically powered sliding-door. Fred pushed the button and the door started to open with a screeching sound.

The tall guy standing behind Fred was feeling nervous. He had been so cool and emotionless a while ago, when he had taken charge of Fred. But now he was in a place he didn't know, and he didn't like the way Fred confidently touched buttons here and there, without waiting for his permission (they could have been alarm-buttons) - he felt out of control.

Fred sensed the uncomfortable vibrations of the tense body behind him. The guy was still relatively calm, outwardly, but the storm was building up, and his inner nervousness showed in some sinister way that felt like a threat.

Fred almost preferred the company of the stout fellow, the one with the gun. He was hyperactive and unpredictable. He looked mean. There was always some part of him twitching, but all this activity seemed rather cheerful. Fred liked him better because there was no chance of anything building up in him - whatever came to his mind was directly transferred to his body. Fred might die through his hands quite unexpectedly, but at least he always had direct feed-back of the fellow's emotions.

Fred led the two of them through an underground tunnel, through the basement of another building and then through yet another underground tunnel.

"Where the hell is forensic medicine?" asked the stout guy, putting some kind of general resentment into his voice, but without yet the least trace of suspicion.

Fred said: "They don't keep the dead among the living. When somebody dies in the hospital some nurse gets the job of pushing away the bed. They roll it along these endless corridors. It happens any time of the day or the night."

This was of course a beautiful piece of bullshit.

"Isn't there any light in these corridors?" asked the stout guy.

"There must be," answered Fred, "but as a nightwatchman I'm not supposed to switch on any lights, so I wouldn't know where the switches are, you see..."

"Shut up, now!" said the tall guy, and the tone of his voice was the sign of more to come.

The stout guy didn't attempt making more conversation.

They now arrived in the basement of the building called "Pathology". It was the oldest and most sinister building of the whole complex. The walls were all grey and peeling, the hinges of the wooden doors with old-fashioned handles all needed oiling and there was a black bust of a wise man with prominent moustaches in the majestic stairways. There were pictures along the walls of the stairways too - faded black and white photographs of old rock-carvings showing various (chilling) aspects of primitive medicine.

Fred had known this building even before his nightwatchman-days. There were lab-rooms in here where young students learnt to dissect bodies. He remembered the days when he would be sitting on a bench in a reasonably white shirt at a crude wooden table, scraping out the yellow fat of an open leg.

He remembered the rooms well, the way they had seemed to him in those days. All the wooden tables with all the skin-coloured, hairy, spongy, humid limbs, strongly smelling of alcohol, all the students in their white blouses sitting around them, talking and laughing, just as students do in all lab-sessions. Perhaps they did so here even more, making an effort to distinguish themselves from the deadly silent and yet humanoid objects they were dealing with.

Yes, Fred remembered those fat-scraping days very well, cutting and tearing at the alcohol-soaked limbs, looking for nerves, arteries, veins, getting impatient and scraping them away with the fat...

He remembered working on a head with two or three other guys.

After many years of bathing in alcohol the features had all faded away. The lips were colourless and the mouth just a narrow slit. The beard-hairs looked like tiny arrows sticking in the spongy flesh. Except for them, the shape of the nose was the only prominent thing in this face.

But then Fred had raised one of the shriveled-up eye-lids with the blunt edge of his knife-blade, and suddenly an eye had been staring at him!

The eye had lost every sparkle of life, and yet it still seemed to be aimed somewhere, as though it were ready to come to life again anytime at some divine command.

Fred had taken out the eye. After cutting through the nerve and all the muscles, some of which were surprisingly thick and tough (he used to know their names, long ago), it popped out quite easily. There it was, lying on a metallic plate in front of him.

Fred had dreamily looked out of the window for an instant. When he looked back and the washed-out face appeared in the corner of his visual field he got a small shock because the other eye was staring at him - one of his mates had opened the lid. Fred looked straight at the challenging eye - it was lifeless, what else had he expected?

Today things were different. The rooms were always dark and deserted when Fred visited them. The limbs covered up so they wouldn't dry out, or even put away altogether into some fridge.

Today he wasn't wearing a white shirt. He was buckled up in a heavy nightwatchman-attire, and there were two ruffians following him. He took them through a side-door to the staircase that led up towards the ground-floor of this ill-loved building.

Forensic medicine wasn't in this building at all, of course.

The two ruffians followed him up the stairs and into the corridor full of little ovens, fridges and centrifugal-machines. Fred took them along the corridor for a while and opened the door to the big lab-room. There was the familiar poster of a human skeleton, covered with arrows leading from tightly printed paragraphs at the side to the various bones, hanging on the back-wall, next to a show-glass partition where various items were kept in jars. Among them was a human embryo, its tiny fingers clasped to fists and its small face, lacking none of the features, looking just like a rubbery mask for an expensive doll. Fred made sure that his two followers noticed it.

The tables in the room were empty, though.

Fred took them into the next room which contained more charts and empty tables. Behind this room, in the corner of the building, there was a relatively large, refrigerated chamber. The other wing of the building contained some dignified, wood-paneled rooms, with flower-pots and trestles, where recently deceased people could be seen for the last time before burial (or before being stored away for the future use of science, perhaps).

There was a tiny, thick-glassed window in the heavy chamber-door. Fred didn't bother to take a look. He pushed the old-fashioned key into the lock, turned it and bashed down the big handle. He pulled the door fully open without peeping into the chamber first.

Two coffins were lying side by side on some trestles in the middle of the room. Their lids were resting against the wall.

Fred stepped into the chamber unhesitatingly, and the ruffians had to follow.

"Okay." he said.

The stout guy remained standing next to Fred, his little gun pointing. The tall guy moved gradually in among the coffins and looked at the livid faces resting on the pillows.

"Where's the girl..?" he then asked slowly.

"There's only these two." said Fred.

The tall guy looked up from the coffins. There was the faintest trace of suspicion in his eyes as he addressed Fred: "The girl was brought in this evening. She couldn't already be packed away in a coffin!"

"Fuck!" said the stout guy, who obviously had the sharper mind of the two. "This isn't forensic medicine at all!" There was an admiring and deadly menacing undertone in his voice.

The tall guy convulsively moved up towards Fred, almost upsetting one of the coffins. He looked as though he were going to slap Fred across the face.

Fred looked up at him, seeming completely abashed. "This is where they keep the bodies..." he said helplessly.

"Come on, there must be another place!" said the stout guy. "This isn't forensic medicine!"

The tall guy wasn't talking. He was just looking down at Fred, his eyes spitting X-rays.

The stout guy seemed to be thinking, then he said, almost kindly: "Take us back to the entrance we came in and we'll find the department for ourselves."

Fred nodded silently.

"Okay, move! move!" the tall guy finally burst out.

They left the chamber and Fred locked the door. They let him do it, they let him lock all the doors behind him. Possibly it gave them a sense of security.

Fred took them back down the staircase into the basement and through to the underground tunnel. Although he was trying to think of some way to waste more time he couldn’t prevent himself from walking briskly. The tall guy was walking beside him, holding on to the shoulder-strap and occasionally, for no reason at all, pulling him this way and that way.

"Bang!.. Clash..." There was the sound of a sample-carrier banging around a corner in the air-flow tube ahead of them. Nothing could be seen in front of them - just the tunnel peacefully sloping away in a sweeping bend. Fred felt the tall man's grip tightening on his shoulder.

The sample-carrier came whizzing towards them.

As it swished past overhead, Fred felt the grip on his shoulder suddenly loosen completely, and as he half turned round he saw the tall guy taken aback in amazement and the stout fellow almost crouching, pointing his gun up into the air with an expression of utter bewilderment.

Fred switched off his torch and made a dash for it.

He ran, the bundles slopping against his hips. Luckily the tunnel was bending to the right in front of him. Every few steps he gave a quick flicker of his torch. It took several seconds before he heard the first report of the gun.  He wasn't too scared - bullets don't go around bends.

He arrived in the basement of the next building rather breathlessly, but he took care to lock all the doors. Then he ran up the stairs, to the main entrance, unlocked it rather nervously, tore it open and took a deep breath of the clean, fresh night-air.

He was so excited he actually had to stop and think about what to do next. Since he had lost his radio he would have to find a telephone. Where was the closest telephone?

He found one in an office and selected the three-digit emergency number of the police he had known by heart for so long without ever needing it. While the phone was ringing at the other end, he tried to cool down. When the calm, deep voice answered, Fred immediately felt at ease. He said "Good evening", gave his function and name and a brief account of what had happened. He needed help immediately, he said, and would wait for it at the main entrance of the building “Pathology”.

The guy at the other end repeated the message, Fred said “yes, good-bye” and hung up. Then he rang up the Securitas-office which was very glad to hear from him having got the emergency-call earlier. He gave a quick explanation of what had happened and asked for a couple of superiors to come and help dealing with the police. Whenever Securitas and the police worked together there would be a mutual exchange of signatures and extensive report-writing about which Fred didn’t feel too confident.

Then Fred left the phone, the office and the building, went outside and walked back to the main entrance of the Pathology-building. He waited under a street-lamp, his eyes on the road, but looking behind him at the door every once in a while, afraid to see the two burglars suddenly rushing out and coming to take revenge on him. Of course that was impossible - even if they found their way in the dark, unknown place, they would still have to break through several doors before getting out.

Nevertheless he was very relieved when the first police-car appeared, cruising down the street at great speed with flashing lights.

 

The police were very efficient. Fred took a few of them into the basement and unlocked the doors for them. He left them as they penetrated into the underground tunnel.

Then he took a couple down to the other building and let them into the tunnel from the other side.

Within minutes all the policemen came out, the two ruffians wearing handcuffs held between them.

Then Fred's hand was warmly shaken by the police-officer and by the superiors and finally he was allowed to get on with his usual job.

He went back to the forensic medicine department, found his radio in the bushes, had another look at the woman in the fridge and took down her false name, Hanna Sedgewick.

The next day Fred's story appeared in the newspaper. It would also find its way into the Securitas-yearbook. The day after, Fred got a letter of congratulations from the federal police. He framed it and put it away among some other useless documents.

Instead of victimizing himself, he had managed to make himself into a hero. For this reason he was very reluctant to show himself pleased and responsive when admired for his courage and cleverness. Besides he had also been lucky, not only clever.

The two men, captured thanks to Fred, had been wanted by the police for several months. They were accused of some attempted and one effective murders.

And yet they were small fry. They had been paid by somebody they didn't know to steal a body in the morgue and dispose of it in the best suited way. They didn't seem to know why, what this was all about, and they didn't care.

So the case was closed.

But why didn't anybody get the idea that Hanna wasn't Hanna? And where was the real Hanna?

Fred could think of only one sensible reason for stealing a corpse, and that was to prevent its identification.  So obviously someone wanted society to continue believing that Hanna was dead, or that Maria was still alive, or both.

By now, formal identification of the body would have taken place, and yet Fred had heard nothing about an unfortunate confusion. He had even read the announcement of Hanna's death in the paper. So by now, Maria would have been buried as Hanna.

How was this possible?

Perhaps Hanna was rather alienated from her parents, and they didn't know what she looked like anymore... And possibly the idea that it wasn't Hanna might have seemed absolutely absurd for some strong reason, washing away all doubts...

But these could only be partial explanations - the resemblance between Hanna and Maria would still have to be bloody big!

So Hanna and Maria must be twins.

So Maria's surname must be Sedgewick, unless she was married, or adopted...

There definitely was some mystery to be uncovered in this whole business. Fred wondered if he should go to the police and tell whatever he knew.

But what did he really know?

He had seen the body of a beautiful woman in the morgue, and the woman had a birth-mark on her left breast. This had brought back to him the memory of a most unfortunate experience - his first sexual experiment, a bitter failure.

That was all that had really happened. How could Fred possibly claim that he had positively identified the body? His emotional reaction to the body had been very strong, and that was understandable, after what he had been through. That meant something about him, but nothing about the body.

And yet,...

Fred had seen many dead bodies. Corpses were part of his life. If that particular body had brought back a faded memory, there must have been a reason, a reminder...

The birth-mark was in the right spot, and it was the right shape too. Fred closed his eyes and tried to picture it, turning it around in his mind.

But could he be sure? The more he thought about that damned birth-mark, the less he remembered it.

Should he go to the police and tell them about this birth-mark that he had first seen many years ago on a school-girl he had tried to rape? Tell them that this school-girl was Maria and not Hanna?

And then possibly the corpse would have to be exhumed, the parents would be asked to confirm the identification of the body...

It would be a big thing.

Surely Fred’s mind, numbed and blurred by too many years of inaction, was just confused at having been shaken awake so suddenly. It was seeing connections where there weren’t any. The birth-mark was just a birth-mark, a meaningless blotch with no particular shape that just happened to be on the left breast.

Whatever Fred had originally wanted to do with Maria, he had failed and lost her. It was no use to go on hoping that he might meet her again and fix things up.

All he had to do was shut up and forget about it.

Okay, he would shut up. He wouldn’t go to the police. But he couldn’t forget about it and so he would do some research of his own.

Maria was dead, lost to the world. But her sister Hanna might still be saved. Perhaps she was held a prisoner by the murderers of Maria. Perhaps there was something for Fred to do. Besides, that was what his inner voice had told him, wasn’t it?

Obviously there was no use in asking people about Hanna. Everybody would tell him that she was dead. He would have to find out about Maria first. Assuming that she was a Sedgewick, all he had to do to get started was to find the Sedgewicks.

So Fred dug out the death-announcement from amongst the old newspapers. There wasn't any address given, of course, he should have known, but the church in which the ceremony took place was in the suburb where Fred had had his first flat, about ten years ago...

Fred looked in the telephone-book for some Sedgewicks living in that suburb. As luck would have it, there was just one family with that name. Well now? should he ring them up?

He didn't like talking to people over the phone too much. He was always scared of forgetting to ask some of the relevant questions and not getting all the answers. Then he would have to ring up again and that was usually beyond him.

When he talked to people directly, the introductory "hello"s and all this stuff would be much more extensive, giving him time to settle into the conversation and feel comfortable. Then he would be less likely to forget to ask all the questions. Besides, in physical encounters it was always possible for him to feel strong through imposing his physical presence. People couldn't just hang up at his face if he got too boring and so he could take his time even when they were growing impatient.

There was another reason for going to see the Sedgewicks - he would get an impression of the place, and since he didn't exactly know what he was looking for, that could be important.

He put his town-map into the breast-pocket and took his motor-bike to go and see the Sedgewicks.

He found the place quite easily. It wasn't very far from his former flat. It was an uninteresting, average-sized family-house with grey walls, large windows with rather colourful curtains, and a reasonable front-yard. Fred left his bike on the drive-way and walked to the entrance-door. There were flower-pots everywhere which seemed to have been left on the lawn randomly. Only half of Fred's mind wondered about this.

He knocked on the door using the blackened brass door-knocker.

It took a while till he heard steps inside. Then the door opened halfway and a non-descript, elderly woman peeked out.

"Good afternoon." Fred said in his most polite manner. He was wearing his uniform without the badges. Those were the only formal clothes he had and it made people confident or at least gave them a feel of his fake authority.

But this woman reacted as though she had seen many men in uniform lately and had grown rather tired of them. "What do you want?" she asked in a resigned way without opening the door any further.

"I once knew your daughter Maria," said Fred, "but I lost touch with her. I was wondering if you could give me her current address."

The woman looked up mildly surprised. Clearly she had been expecting something, but this was something else.

There you are! thought Fred. This woman hasn't got a daughter named Maria!

"Aha..." said the woman and remained quiet. She seemed to be thinking, and the effort made her look older and completely worn-out.

"Yes, you see, we were sort of friends in the time when I...."

"Yes, yes, I understand." said the woman and nodded. Maybe she had wanted to explain something, but now she felt too tired.

"Just a moment..." she said and walked away, leaving the door open.

She came back a little later with a piece of torn-off paper on which she had scribbled a street-name with a number.

"There you are." she said and handed the note over to Fred.

"Oh, thank you!.." said Fred, but she was already closing the door.

He returned to his motor-bike and drove off.

Now all those flower-pots made sense to him - they must be leftovers from the ceremony. He had just talked to Hanna's mother who had another daughter called Maria..!

Well, Fred set out to find Maria's place immediately.

The street where Maria lived already belonged to the main town, Fred guessed. There were a couple of bus-stops, a mechanic’s garage or two, a few shops and many elderly houses lacking in character, some of them tastelessly renovated. The number Fred was looking for belonged to one of these houses. The entrance was at the side, away from the street, hidden behind some bushes. Fred looked at the letterboxes, most of them bearing a little sticker with some girl’s first name, written in cute, girlish hand-writing, sometimes accompanied by a drawing of a little red heart.

Fred grew a bit suspicious seeing all this, and sure enough, Maria’s name was there too...

He stepped into the building and looked for her door. He didn’t hesitate for too long when he found it and knocked purposefully.

Nothing happened.

So now what? He had found the place where Maria lived, and since she was dead she could obviously not be home...

He went over to the next door and knocked there. It took only a quarter of a minute and the door opened a crack. A female face stuck out and said in an artificially melodious and suggestively flavoured voice:

“Hello, darling... Do you want to come in..?”

“I’d be looking for Maria.” said Fred, matter-of-factly.

“Oh, I see...” said the slow, slurring voice, “well, what about me for a change..?”

“No offence meant,” said Fred with a half-smile on his face as though he were tolerantly amused, “but my mind is rather set on Maria.”

“Yes,” said the woman, and her voice lost most of its surface sensuality, which uncovered something that seemed to Fred almost mournful. “Maria is young and beautiful, just the type suited to a guy like you.”

“Thank you,” said Fred, “now where or when can I find her?”

“How would I know?”

“She’s your neighbour. What can you tell me about her?”

“Listen, either you’re going to come in, or I’ll have to close the door. You might be blotting out my customers.”

“I’ll come in.” said Fred simply.

The woman started to open the door further. Fred saw her tight skirt under which some elaborate underwear was showing. Her legs looked fat and reddened, bursting out from under the skirt as it seemed.

“That will be eighty euros, then.” she said.

“No, no,” said Fred, laughing and holding the door. “All I want is to find out about Maria.”

“If you want to talk, we can talk.” said the woman. “You can have me as a bonus. It’s all the same price.”

Fred had the money. He suddenly felt like going in there with her and undressing, completely, lying down on the mattress with its pink little roses on the bed with its artistically curved, golden bedstead. There he would be lying, on his back, shamelessly naked, looking up into the cracked ceiling and at the fancy lamp with all the purple wool-cords hanging down from it...

A slight breeze would be coming in from under the light, pink curtains mildly filtering the daylight, and would brush softly past his genitals and through his body-hair...

She would come towards him and put a glass of whisky into his outstretched hand...

But then she would lie down next to him, put her fat hands all over his body, try to make him do something, and this thought didn’t stimulate him at all.

“I want Maria, not you.” he said, quite sternly. He was glad to be wearing a uniform. It was good to be appearing as a diplomat instead of just a man in front of such a woman who could imagine any man naked so easily.

“What do you want of her?” said the woman, suddenly suspicious. Obviously she had gathered that he really wasn’t here just as a man, but as a representative of something bigger.

“Guess..!” said Fred and smiled quizzically.

Now the woman really didn’t know what to think.

“You can help me.” said Fred. “I’ll give you eighty euros now if you promise to ring me up as soon as somebody enters her flat. I’ll give you another eighty euros when it has happened.”

“You really want to meet her, don’t you?” asked the woman.

“Yes.” said Fred.

“Well, you see, she hasn’t been round for quite a few days now. She didn’t tell anybody where she went. She never talked much. She is much younger than most of us and seems to come from some rich and well-educated back-ground. Her customers also are strange...”

“What do you mean?” asked Fred, hardly hiding his interest.

“Well, they would only stay for a few minutes, so I sometimes wondered what she was doing with them. They are mostly gentlemen in suits and with business  attaché-cases. They come fairly regularly, I suppose. I saw a few hanging round recently, not knowing what to do now that she is away.”

“Why are you telling me all this?” asked Fred, as though he wasn’t interested.

“Well, you don’t seem to be part of the game,” said the woman, looking at him curiously, “so I just wanted to warn you that in the end you might be dealing with something bigger than you think.”

“That’s okay,” said Fred with faked casualness, “you just ring me up as soon as somebody is around.”

He took out a note-pad and wrote down his phone-number. He gave her the number and eighty euros.

“Okay?” he asked.

“I’ll do what I can...” she said.

“Just ring me up any time of the day or the night.” he said and left.

 

Fred was lying on his bed in the dark, listening to music. It must be rather late in the evening, but of course he wouldn’t be able to sleep - nightwatchmen don’t sleep at night, not even in their holidays. Their circadian rhythm is tuned for night-activity.

He was wearing his head-phones and felt surrounded by the music. Somehow he didn’t remember having enjoyed music this much for a long time.

He wasn’t quite sure if music should be considered as a useless invention, a soothing voice that beckons to the mind and leads it into issueless dreams and illusions, or if it should be considered as mankind’s greatest achievement.

Is music just a drug?

First of all, what is a drug?

A drug is usually some chemical that sets the mind spinning. It doesn’t bear any information, it doesn’t teach or show the mind anything new but just reveals to consciousness things that were hidden or carefully filed away, throws them about, lets the mind play with them, and then its effect wears off, leaves the mind sitting in its own mess.

Perhaps the mind really gets fun out of playing with its own fantasies. Perhaps it gets so much fun that it doesn’t wish to interact with the outside world any more.

But of course drugs don’t bring any renewal. They just disrupt connections, hinder inhibitions to do their work, allow the mind to play but never offer it any new items to play with.

And so what? Why should the mind be so neophile in the first place?

Well, being neophile is possibly what life is all about - after all the universe is not an excessively stable place, its entropy keeps growing and nothing in it is ever absolute. By being neophile, life-forms manage to keep ahead of the changes in their environment and thus to survive.

While a mind which plays its own games without interacting with anything outside of itself will just drown in this careless, aimless world, waves of destiny regretlessly lapping over the sinking body as it disappears from view together with its amazing (but useless) internal structure.

So drugs, whatever they are (good or bad), certainly don’t uphold life.

What about music? Is music just a drug?

Fred certainly was addicted to it, but it wasn’t a drug for him, he felt.

Music bears some information, many people have put a life-time of effort into setting it up.

Music, Fred felt, offered him a roster for his thoughts and feelings. With its rhythm, its recurring and yet evolving themes it offered him the kind of steadiness his mind needed to organize its blurred visions into some picture that made sense.

Like a washing-line to hang out the freshly cleaned and invariably hopelessly mixed clothes from the washing-machine...

And yet music is more than just a steady line.

Even when there is a steady line, a mixed-up mind might still forget what it was trying to do while walking between the line and the washing-basket. This is where music offers some real help - through the familiarity of the musical theme it reminds the mind of what it has just done, and through the novelty of the development it shows the mind what might come next.

Well now, what about a piece of music that you know so well it has become a part of yourself? What about listening to it over and over again? Does this start to resemble drug-addiction?

This is when the phone rang.

In the middle of the night? Incredible!

It was the prostitute. She didn’t sound like a prostitute over the phone. Her voice was slightly excited, but not at all in a suggestive way. In fact, she was trying to hide it.

“You wanted to find out about Maria, didn’t you?” she said instead of a greeting.

“Yes...” answered Fred, also becoming rather excited.

“Well, there’s somebody in her flat now, rummaging about.”

“I’ll be right there!” said Fred and hung up.

He got properly dressed, shut down the CD-player and the lights, left the flat and went into the big, underground, common garage of the building. His Mustang was standing there, waiting for him, looking at him with its rounded headlights from under its fierce brow, ready for a night-ride.

But Fred decided that his present assignment was too ill-defined to take the car and warm up its eight cylinders. He went for his motor-bike instead. It was standing further off, next to the supermarket-trolleys. Its rough two-stroke, air-cooled one-cylinder engine would be better suited for the job.

He fitted a couple of ear-plugs into his ears, unfastened the helmet and slipped it on, threw himself astride of the saddle with its crackled and bursting pseudo-leather covering, fitted the key and punched the choke in to its full capacity.

Then he kick-started the motor with a single, violent movement of his leg and fed it with little bursts of gas from his right hand on the handle-bar. The growling noise was unpleasant, high-pitched and nerve-wrecking.

Keeping the engine alive with his right hand, Fred eased the choke away. Then he pulled the clutch with his left hand, clanked in the first gear with his left foot, gradually let go of the clutch, and stimulating the engine a bit he drove off.

The huge garage door opened in front of him, he drove through, and it silently glided back into its place behind him.

The fresh night-air that hit his face was extremely rejuvenating, and soon the motor-bike was howling through the streets, rushing along at rather unlawful speeds.

He came to the house of the prostitutes and left the bike on the sidewalk. There wasn’t any light in any of the windows on the street-side. Obviously it was too late at night even for sex-business, or maybe they were just all doing it in the dark. But everything was so quiet that Fred suspected there was nothing going on at all.

He entered the building (the main-door was still open at least - it must always be open) and went straight to the door of the woman he had met last time, next to Maria’s door. He knocked on it, discreetly. The door opened, the woman appeared, hurriedly drew Fred inside by the sleeve and closed it.

Her one-room flat was inadequately illuminated by the fancy lamp with the wool-cords, giving a yellowish, dirty glow by which diverse colours couldn’t be told apart. The light curtains were drawn, behind them the window and the shutters were closed. The air was stuffy and stale, listlessly hanging in the room like the feeble light.

“He’s still there!” said the woman, rather nervously.

“It’s a He then, is it?” asked Fred.

“I think so,” the woman whispered, “listen...”, and she applied her head against the wall.

Fred did the same and listened carefully. There was some kind of noise, as if some biggish stuff was being shifted around.

“How long has this been going on?” asked Fred.

“It had just begun when I rang you up.” That was less than a quarter of an hour ago.

“Here’s eighty euros for you.” said Fred and handed her the money.

Then he just remained sitting there, on her bed, listening at the wall, while she sat beside him, not very close, waiting for him to go.

The shifting stopped. Fred stood up and silently moved to the door. He listened intently. The mysterious man next door was leaving. Fred could hear the key being turned in the lock, then steps down the corridor.

Fred waited for half a moment, then he swiftly opened the door and let himself out.

The man was just going through the main-entrance. He was carrying a big cardboard-box. Fred followed him out of the building, remaining in the shadows when possible, only going a few steps at a time, around the block till he saw him loading the box into the boot of a smart car.

Then he ran to his motor-bike, started it and rode to the other side of the street where he stopped and waited among some parked cars, the small motor in front of his feet, still warm, busily but not too loudly tuckering at a steady idle.

Then the car came out of the parking-lot, its blinding headlights seeming to shine straight into Fred’s face, turned into the street and drove away with the soft, low-pitched whine of a modern, powerful engine.

Fred let the car gain plenty of distance, then started off in pursuit.

The car was going at a steady, sensible speed, and Fred had to be careful not to get too close, because then it would have seemed strange for him not to overtake. But when the car left town and struck a national road that was winding its way into some woods the driver’s mood seemed to change abruptly - Fred had to push his bike very hard in order not to lose him on the steep upgrades.

It occurred to Fred that the driver of the car might actually be trying to do just that - lose the hunter. As long as there were curves he didn’t have a chance, of course, because by bending low Fred managed to corner in a way no car could. With the Mustang he might have been unable to keep up, despite its eight cylinders.

After the upgrades came the downgrades. Fred decided to play a trick. In a tight curve with little visibility he suddenly flung the gears from fifth into fourth and accelerated. He passed the corner of the car at a few centimeters' distance, and, the small engine howling like a desperate, cornered creature as it launches its final attack, he overtook the car with his knee almost scraping the ground.

He swung back into his lane a short distance from the grill of the car, shifted back into fifth and swiftly left the car behind him.

Now the car-driver must assume that Fred was just a crazy kid playing dangerous games on the almost deserted roads at night - nothing more.

Further off, when the headlights of the car had disappeared from view, Fred slowed down, shifted down into second gear and switched off the high-beam headlight, leaving the job of illuminating the road ahead to the feeble park light.

The car was coming up, still driving relatively hard.

Fred was tuckering along at the side of the road like a baby-motorcycle, or a moped.

The car was behind him. It wasn’t slowing down.

Whamm! It passed him at great speed, Fred felt the gush of wind, and it was gone, disappearing in a curve ahead.

Fred switched the high-beam back on again and accelerated. He had some difficulty catching up with the car, but finally he managed and kept at a sensible distance from it. He didn't reckon that the car-driver would get the idea that the hunter was behind him again - Fred was just another bikie, and the original hunter must be miles ahead or lying in a ditch, dead.

The road was leaving the woods now. They were coming into the spacey suburbs of the rich. This was not too far from where Fred's parents lived, where Fred himself had lived for most of his youth, in fact...

The car slowed down to a lawful speed, and so did Fred as he came up closer.

He was following the car closely, but without rousing suspicions this time, he hoped.

When the car turned into a drive-way, Fred refrained from following it only just in time.

He parked the bike further off and came back to the drive-way by foot. He memorized the house-number and checked out the name of the street.

Now should he go and spy out the house?

There might be a big dog or some form of burglar-alarm in the garden. Fred's prey would get very suspicious if he suddenly saw all the lights going on in his garden, specially since he probably didn't have a clear conscience and possibly hadn't quite forgotten about those motor-bikes following him.

Fred decided against it. He had played the hero for long enough. It was time for him to go to the police, tell them about the strange things he knew and let them finish the job.

So he walked back to his motor-bike and set off on his way home.

 

At three o’clock in the afternoon Fred was sitting in the kitchen, eating lunch. He had reluctantly come out of bed a couple of hours earlier, when he had lost interest in the car-magazines that were lying on the floor next to it.

Then he had got dressed, putting on the same smelly clothes he had worn the day before, since it didn’t indispose him himself and there was no chance that anybody else would take a close sniff at him today.

Then he had watched a trick film on video, the story of a little dinosaur looking for his mother in a grand, desolate, antediluvian world. The stereo-soundtrack was excellent, he loved the music, a grand orchestration of sentimentality...

He wondered what he got out of these children's tales. Perhaps his parents should have taken him to the movies when he was the right age for this stuff. But they had made him wait till he could afford it for himself. Nowadays these films didn’t make him happy.

After the film, Fred got hungry, and so he went into the kitchen. He was sitting there now, finishing his lunch, and didn’t yet know what to do with the rest of the day - and the better part of the night.

The police - he should go to the police and tell them... 

Tell them what?

Well, Hanna’s parents had a daughter called Maria who was a prostitute and who had disappeared after Hanna’s supposed death...

Maria’s den had been searched at night by a man who drove a smart car and lived in the well-to-do eastern suburbs...

And so what?

Fred would have to tell them that Hanna wasn’t Hanna, that Maria was the one who had been killed and that efforts on solving the case should be concentrated there.

He would have to claim that even though he hardly knew Maria he had been more able to identify her than her own parents.

The whole story about how he knew of the birth-mark would have to be brought to light...

Well, maybe not. He could possibly say that he had been one of Maria’s customers, since she was a prostitute. That would explain his knowledge about the birth-mark and his immediate reaction to finding her body in the fridge.

Immediate reaction...  The police would then inquire why he hadn’t come to see them about this earlier, if he was so sure.

But he wasn’t so sure. Perhaps Hanna too had a birth-mark on her left breast. Perhaps Maria who was a prostitute had nothing to do with the Maria he had fleetingly met ages ago.

Perhaps there had never even been a birth-mark on the corpse in the fridge - perhaps the swelled edges of the deadly stabbing-wound had only seemed like a birth-mark in the wavering torch-light, and Fred, being in the midst of sexual fantasies, had jumped to conclusions...

Fred could never go to the police now.

When the telephone rang he shivered almost convulsively.

But it was only Securitas, asking him if he could do some extra work. Since he had no family and hardly any friends with whom to make arrangements it wasn’t very important to him when he had his holidays, and he had often accepted work at short notice. He was the odd-job-man at Securitas.

“Yeah,” he answered, “if it’s not the usual walkabout around the hospital-buildings.”

“No it’s not, it’s some business-man who wants someone around his house for the night while he is away. A very quiet job.”

“Fine.” said Fred.

“We’ll expect you at the office in full uniform at seven pm, then, ok?”

“Right.” said Fred.

“Thank-you!” said the guy at the other end with some real warmth, because by saying yes Fred had spared him from making at least half a dozen more unsuccessful calls.

Well, the question of what to do with the rest of the day was resolved. He had four hours to go shopping (buying some food and some comics to read for the night), to prepare a big meal that he would be able to take with him (something like a cheese-pie and an apple-pie; the cheese-pie would get cold, but maybe there would be a microwave-oven in the house).

He would also pack his portable TV-video-set together with a few stimulating tapes into the car.

Then he would spend a quiet, rather boring night, with nothing but the hourly radio-messages to worry about, but at least every one of these idly spent hours would mean a net-sum of fifteen euros coming into his pocket.

The early-morning hours would be the worst - the pictures in the comics would be flickering in front of his tired eyes, and even the simplest bullshit-story would be hard to follow.

Driving back to the office and then home in that state wasn’t very clever, of course, but probably he would manage to get home before the morning rush-hours, and then he would take a quick shower to get rid of the uniform-smell, crawl into his bed and gratefully forget about the awakening world outside his window.

Shortly before seven Fred drove up in front of the Securitas main office. On the seat beside him were several bags with all the stuff he would need tonight to spend a pleasant and extended evening.

He entered the office and looked around. “Mister Stroehm?” said the girl behind the bullet-proof window.

“Yeah?” answered Fred non-committedly. She was a pretty girl, really, but Fred had no idea what kind of conversation he could possibly ever have with her. She called most of the men working here by their first names, but had made an exception for Fred who always treated her very formally and avoided talk when she handed out the keys and radio to him in the evenings.

“Inspector Dupertuis will take you there.” she said.

“Thanks.” answered Fred.

She was talking into a microphone beside her, telling Dupertuis that Stroehm had arrived, no doubt.

Then Fred was approached by a superior. “Mister Stroehm?”

“Yes, good evening.”

“Inspector Dupertuis.” and he stretched out his hand.

Fred grabbed and shook it, unsmilingly. He didn’t like the inspector very much. He was friendly enough, but that friendliness was so constant that it obviously could have no meaning.

“You’ve got a car?” he asked Fred as he led him out.

“Yes, the blue one there...” said Fred.

The inspector didn’t comment on it. “You follow me.” he said, taking out the key for one of the company-cars.

He didn't take off his cap in the car and drove off at a rather quick rate. By the time Fred had started his Mustang and maneuvered out of the parking-slot he was almost out of sight, down the road.

The Mustang wasn't warm yet, since Fred lived quite close to the Securitas office. "That fool can bloody well wait a moment!" Fred muttered with shut teeth to himself as he calmly motored down the road towards his superior.

When he had caught up, the inspector accelerated again and was smoothly gaining distance over Fred.

The double-exhaust of the Mustang was bubbling with a thunderous undertone. "You just wait till I'm hot, then I'll show you!" muttered Fred.

It took less than a minute, and the needle was beyond the blue mark. "Now I'll be sticking to your fucking rear-bumper!" said Fred.

He hated the inspector. There was a correctness about him which was exceedingly tiring. The well-groomed, black moustaches above his colourless, paper-thin lips seemed to monitor whatever he said, filtering out any possible emotions in his voice. Even jokes coming out of this mouth would have a robotic quality which might appeal to some people, specially to those who basically believed in his authority, but which made Fred feel tired and bored.

What the jokes were all about were people who had dropped out of the natural ways of things, people who had stepped out of line (and had consequently got caught in the most ridiculous situations).

Fred didn't believe in such a "natural" way of things. The rules had been made up arbitrarily and without foundations (they actually themselves served as foundations for further rules), and if people stepping out of line got caught in embarrassing situations, this wasn't a proof of the validity of the rules at all - it only happened because some shitters made sure it did.

So this inspector's sense of humour, meant to convey a powerful feeling of belonging together and being strong (we're the ones who know the rules), made Fred feel weak and helpless (I'm the one caught in the labyrinth).

Fred suspected that this inspector would treat anybody at least as an equal. All professions work along the same principles. Even scientists and doctors are basically the same as a high-ranked nightwatchman - they're involved with another set of rules, that's all the difference.

This man would never understand that some things can actually be discovered and understood, not just learned by heart.

Fred was helpless in front of such a man - all he could do was repeat "yes" as often as he was expected to, and assure him that he had really got the message whenever he was told one of those jokes meant to emphasize a point.

But now the Mustang was warm.

The road led up a hill, and the Mustang growled as it kept close to the company-car.

But why did the Mustang growl so much when the other car managed to make the same effort without a sound?

They stopped at some red lights. When the lights turned green the company-car swiftly accelerated, and when Fred drove off a microsecond later he didn't have to check his Mustang as he would have expected, but was kept busy shifting through the gears in order to keep up.

So! This conventional four-cylinder car was actually competing against a Mustang and not even doing badly!

They entered the highway. At least on a long, straight stretch the Mustang would eventually beat the company-car, no doubt about it. Its top-speed was 200.

Barely 200...  while the company-car, without making the slightest claim of being a sports-car, could probably better 180...

This was upsetting.

At least the Mustang had plenty of torque - no four-cylinder would beat it there. It would gladly climb up a hill with four loaded trailers behind it which would make any of those swift little Japanese runners stall even on flat country.

But who cares about trailers? Fred didn't even have a tow-bar on his Mustang...

Torque isn't only good for towing. But if it improves neither top-speed nor acceleration, what can it be good for?

But of course the Mustang was also much heavier. In an accident it would squash any of those little modern cars like an egg while hardly getting a scratch itself on its massive bumpers...

Fred watched the speedometer carefully and realized that his superior was obviously not very respectful of speed-limits.

Of course Securitas company-cars wouldn't usually get fined - they were always in a hurry. The police and Securitas covered each other in an unclean brotherhood-way. Fred had heard a story about an occurrence at a National Exhibition. Some security-guard watching an entrance had noticed three men bashing up an elderly drunk. He immediately ran to find some policemen standing on duty further off to seek help. The policemen told him it wasn't their business to get mixed up in those things, and the drunk was finally left behind, unconscious, by the three guys who left unapprehended. The security-guard, working for Securitas, was ordered by his superiors to shut his mouth about what had happened, or else he would be sacked on account of having left his position unattended.

So what was the use of security-guards and policemen when people could be bashed up in front of their noses?

Never mind that now...

Perhaps Fred's speedometer was fucked. Perhaps it was drastically overestimating speed.

That would mean that on the few occasions when he had been in a racing-fit and had pushed the Mustang towards 200 he wasn't actually going that fast...

200, being a nice, round number, is the limit between a shitter-car and a real car. Fred would have a sleepless night (or rather day) if he suddenly doubted that his car could reach at least 200, as the speedometer kindly suggested...

These doubts were becoming unbearable! Fred would have to buy another vehicle. A real racer!

What about a super-motorbike, since he already had a car? A Yamaha V-max, one of those things which leave steaming rubber-bands behind their wheels when they drive off. No street-legal car can beat a Yamaha V-max on acceleration..!

But what about the winter? Surely a Yamaha V-max wasn't very good in the snow. Besides Fred had never seen any on the road except in sunshine. They were the toys of the rich, for those people who already had a powerful car.

So Fred would have to continue using the Mustang in the snow. He would in effect sacrifice it to the motorbike...

That was unthinkable! The Mustang was part of his image. If he let it rust away under him he would end up with a blob-shaped modern car and lose the very last of his distinctiveness!

The company-car was still in front of him, with that fucking inspector at the wheel. If only Fred had not had to follow him! He would have been spared all these unworthy, unfruitful doubts about nothing!

Why hadn't they just given him the keys and the address of the place instead of actually leading him there? He would have enjoyed the ride in his wonderful car instead of mumbling to himself!

The company-car was leaving the highway now. So, they were heading towards those eastern suburbs, where Fred had chased a car only yesterday. It would be funny if...

Well, no, these things never happen.

The company-car was going this way and that way, along familiar routes. And here was the drive-way to Maria’s “friend”...

Sure enough, the company-car put out its blinker and entered the drive-way!

It drove up to the house and stopped in front of it, Fred’s superior making no effort to park it in any usual, tidy sense. He stepped out of the car and stood beautifully upright, looking grand in his well-cut uniform in front of the white car with blue lettering, with the elegant mansion in the background. Securitas, the guardians of law and order!

Fred parked his Mustang next to the double-garage in an orderly fashion and clambered out of the seat. He demurely walked up to his superior and let himself be flooded by explanations about the alarm-system, the doors, windows and keys, as well as more general things that any nightwatchman knew anyway.

He was very glad when the tiring superior finally left, because he was eager to explore the house.

Fred had always liked to see other people’s houses when he had them to himself. He would examine their stereo-equipment, check through the magazine-stands and book-shelves, have a look at their bed-rooms and kitchens and try to picture their lives. In that sense, if only there had been more diversity, being a nightwatchman would not have been totally unsuited to him.

In this house there was something in particular to discover - the cardboard-box. Fred remembered the box, a big, solid box with red lettering all over it. He had all night to find it.

He started with the garage, which was so tidy it contained virtually nothing more than the smart car.

So the gentleman hadn’t left with his car. That meant he had probably taken a taxi to the airport and was flying. If he was flying the chances that he had taken the huge cardboard-box with all its mysteries with him were very small. That was good news.

Fred checked out the boot of the smart car - the box wasn’t in there any more.

And if the gentleman was actually delivering the box somewhere? That would explain why he was away so shortly after having found it.

Fred dismissed this depressing idea. Something else had occurred to him - if the gentleman required a security-guard in his house tonight while never having needed one before, that might mean that he had something very valuable to protect and was feeling threatened.

Perhaps it was because of those motor-bikes which had chased him that he was scared.

Fred felt that he was getting close to solving a case all on his own. How was this possible? Through sheer, highly improbable luck?

No, everything that had happened so far made sense. When somebody died violently in town it was within a reasonable range of probability that Fred, being one of the few men who shared the job of watching over the morgue at night throughout the week, would see the corpse. So when Maria, living in this town, was killed, it wasn’t so absurd that Fred would discover her body in the fridge.

Then Fred had made a few sensible assumptions and acted upon them. He had freaked out the gentleman by chasing him at night, and it was logical for the gentleman to be worried over his precious box. Whoever wanted a security-guard at his home would contact Securitas, the most known name in this business, and whenever Securitas needed a man on short notice in this town, they would ask Fred, since he was their odd-job-man.

So the whole thing wasn’t just a huge streak of luck - it was perfectly logical for Fred to be here tonight and have a chance of finding that box. It was as if he had planned for this to happen.

But then again he might not find the box. Somewhere or other his careful examination of this case might still stall, and then he would regret that he hadn’t gone to the police earlier.

Well, for the time being he would look for the box.

He found the stairways to the basement. It was like the entrance to a bunker, strangely alien to the rest of the house, which was comfortably kept in a rather neutral, but pleasant style, like the living-room in an embassy which also serves reception-purposes.

The basement consisted of a dark hall with grey concrete-walls. Part of it was organized into a cellar with a couple of large, softly buzzing fridges, their little control-diodes dimly (macabrely, Fred thought) glowing, a wide stand for wine-bottles and boxes of food that would last for many months.

Further off there were several filing-cabinets. The keys of some of them were sticking in the locks, but others were closed. Fred opened whatever could be opened, but found nothing of interest.

Wouldn’t there be a safe somewhere? Well, if there was, it would certainly be locked.

An unpleasant idea came to Fred - what if the gentleman had unpacked the cardboard-box, and locked up the precious contents in a safe, for instance? Fred would never get behind the mystery then...

This gentleman didn’t seem the kind to be keeping things in boxes, except for his food...

There it was, the box with red lettering, two other boxes piled on top of it! Or maybe it was just a similar box to the one Fred had seen him carrying that evening. Perhaps it was the same box, but with different contents...

Well, Fred checked it out anyway. He lifted off the two other boxes, the top one containing lettuce, the lower one various tin-cans (it was very heavy), and tore the box with the red lettering open, not knowing what to expect.

It contained many identical and sealed plastic-bags full of some white powder. Flour, what else could it be?..

But Fred, keeping his own house-hold, knew about flour - it is sold in the supermarkets within paper-bags full of fancy print. You cannot buy it within blank, transparent plastic-bags...

Fred took out his pocket-knife and made a small hole into one of the bags, then squeezed out some of the powder and carefully tasted it.

It had a rich, sickeningly sweet aroma.

This definitely wasn’t flour!

It must be heroin, like in the films...

Fred’s heart was thumping fast! So finally he had found something, something definite!

Calm down now! What is there to do next?

Fred decided not to leave the box here. He lifted it up and carried it away, out of the house and towards his car. He put it into the boot of the Mustang, on top of the spare tyre.

Well now, was this a good idea?

A superior might come here any time of the night to see how Fred was working, to check out his vigilance (Fred hoped he would someday surprise one of his superiors by hitting him over the head with his torch; he would then claim that he hadn’t been able to identify the guy as a superior, but that he was obviously behaving in a very suspicious, threatening way, so that Fred had done what had seemed best in the circumstances).

The superior, after discreetly watching over Fred for a while, would then come out of cover and ask Fred to empty his pockets and would also want to have a look inside Fred’s car. Then he would write a huge report about Fred, and Fred would have to read through it, nodding his head several times, the superior would make him sign it and would then finally, after having given Fred a big smile, leave him alone to go and bully somebody else.

The superior would see the video-recorder in Fred’s car: “Is that your video-recorder?”

“Yes.”

So then the superior would write in his report: “carries a video-recorder in his car.” Of course there can be no law against this. Fred might have been using the car for other things during the day, and he might have forgotten to take out the video-recorder.

Then the superior would see the box in Fred’s car.

“What is this?”

“Flour.”

“Aha...”  The superior would have to accept that. Fred wouldn’t come up with any stuttering explanations. It is no good to become embarrassed in front of superiors, it makes them suspicious. If they want to know more, let them ask.

Fred had been given some similar piece of advice about girls, long ago, by a friend he hardly remembered now, when he was a boy:

“When you go and see a girl, never make up any stupid excuses for doing so. If you do, your interaction with her will remain stuck within that fake purpose. Just let her wonder about you for a while, and if you then manage to make her comfortable and you both have a good time, the question why you came in the first place will never pop up again.”

Yeah, that’s how it works for other people. But Fred was so uncomfortable with girls that the question why he had come would naturally reappear. The girl would insist, and Fred would have nothing to say...

Well, Fred was uncomfortable with everybody, not just superiors and girls. The only reason why these two classes of people stood out from among the rest of the shitters was that he had some basic need to interact with them...

So Fred had found the box, had made an important discovery, and yet he managed just now to sadden and depress himself! That was stupid!

He took the TV-video-set together with his bag of tapes out of his car and carried them to the house where he settled down to watch some thoughtless film and spend a pleasantly empty evening.

 

Fred was lying on the bed, holding up his 357 Magnum in front of him. The grip of the revolver lay smoothly and ergonomically in his hand. He was aiming at some spots in the ceiling and occasionally pulled the trigger, the cylinder would turn by sixty degrees, the hammer would bounce back upon the empty chamber and Fred would listen to the precise clicks of the fine mechanism.

A 357 Magnum is an excellent weapon. The cartridges are about the same size and weight as for an ordinary 38 Special, and while a 38 Special will usually do the job for you, killing your man without too much trouble, a jacketed 357 Magnum bullet, though it won’t compare with the massive 44 Magnum, will gladly penetrate a car from behind, traverse both rows of seats as well as the driver and then still have enough thrust to go and encrust itself in the motor-block.

Fred turned round in bed, rested his head on his elbow, laid down the gun next to him and admired it. He let a finger glide over the glistening, soothingly cool metal-surface of the six-inch barrel.

Well now, time had come to do something. The box with its contents, doubtlessly worth several millions of euros, was lying on the kitchen-table.

He stood up and walked through his room half naked, holding the gun casually, and went to his desk where he laid it down. Then he got dressed, left for the bathroom and then for the kitchen, leaving his gun on the desk.

When he came back he opened a drawer, took out his holster as well as a box of cartridges, loaded the gun, fastened the holster around his shoulders and slipped the gun into it. The box of cartridges he forcefully drove into his rather too small pocket.

He left the room, grabbed and put on his jacket, made sure the holster with the revolver was hidden beneath it, and left the flat.

He drove off to the eastern suburbs on his motorbike.

When he came to the drive-way of Maria’s “friend” he didn’t hesitate - after all he had spent a whole night on that property. He had no official business there now, but at least it wasn’t unknown ground.

He drove up to the house and left his bike next to the garage, on the spot where the Mustang had been some time ago. As he walked to the main door over the lightly crunching pebbles he could see a curtain being drawn aside in one of the windows, and a worried man looking out.

Fred came up to the door and pushed the bell-button. He couldn’t hear any ringing-sound. Either the bell was broken, which seemed highly unlikely considering the condition of the whole property, or it was ringing within the hidden, soundproof depths of the house.

The bell had obviously been heard, because very soon the door opened.

There was the gentleman, the guy who had carried the box out of Maria’s den, the guy with the smart car who had tried to escape from the motorbike, the guy who had hired a nightwatchman for a single night and thus led the enemy straight into his fortress. He looked tired, spent, downtrodden. But he was tall, well-groomed and had this competent look which is unbeatable, the look of someone who is above, who has succeeded in securing a higher position for himself and will keep it whatever happens, the look of someone who has the backing of society being a superior member of it.

“What is it?” he asked, tiredly, and looked down upon Fred.

Fred felt himself blushing like a child trying to sell flowers on the doorstep.

“Well now...” he said and didn’t know how to continue. He pulled out the little plastic bag with the white powder from his pocket and showed it to the man. The man took it, turned it round in his hand (was it slightly trembling?..) and gave it back.

“Yes?” said the man, very politely, making Fred feel like saying: “Oh nothing, I’m sorry...” and going away with his head on fire.

But Fred remained brave. “Do you want it back? I’ve got the whole box.”

The man remained quiet. Soon it was too late for him to say, in the manner of a slightly impatient gentleman with more important things to do: “What box? Tell me what you want or please leave.”

He said nothing of the sort. He just remained quiet, but the way he looked at Fred was disquieting nonetheless.

Fred didn’t say anything either. He only touched the reassuring bump under his left shoulder and tried to look as unemotional as possible.

It seemed endless, but finally the man deemed it necessary to answer the question. “How much do you want?” he asked softly.

“No, no,” said Fred, smiling (the worst was over), “I don’t want any money. I want the girl.”

The man was truly astounded. “The girl? Which girl?”

“Her name is Hanna Sedgewick.” said Fred.

“I don’t know her!” said the man and looked angry and scared.

“Of course you do!” said Fred. “Anyway, you hand over the girl to me, and I’ll hand over the powder to you.”

“The whole lot?” asked the man, regaining his calm and his natural superiority.

“Sure...” said Fred, dryly, as if answering a totally irrelevant question.

“I’ll take note. I’ll talk to my friends about this.” said the man, almost in his probably usual, competent manner.

“Now you listen,” said Fred, trying his hardest not to be put off by the reassumed patronizing manner of his opponent, “I’ll be waiting for you tonight at three o’clock in the woods. You take the first woodcutter’s path on your right when you drive from here into the city. I’ll be waiting there with the powder. Make sure you bring the girl.”

“We’ll be there...” answered the man and gave Fred a menacing half-smile. He had obviously totally regained his strength. Fred would have to be very careful.

“Right!” said Fred, turned briskly round and went off to his motorbike.

 

It was night, about one o'clock, nothing as yet suggested that daylight would ever reappear.

Fred was in the woods, standing beside his car. He had switched off all the lights, and his eyes were getting slowly accommodated to the dark. After a while he managed to make out that the sky above the gravel-path was a deep purple instead of totally black, and the path itself shimmered feebly like a silvery snail-track.

Fred listened for any sounds. At first he could hear nothing, but gradually he became aware of a rustle of leaves here and there, as well as the soft dripping of water somewhere. He knew nothing about these sounds, and would probably never find their origins, even if he went to look for them with his torch. They belonged to the mystery of the forest. Here all kinds of creatures did their own thing, and each of them saw the world in its own way, so that in effect each of them represented a different world, and each of these worlds probably held a paradise as well as a hell. All these worlds were inaccessible to Fred. He could only witness the occasional overlapping with his own realms of experience and try to imagine the rest.

Fred also did his own thing around here - he would occasionally come here to do some shooting. Further down the track there was a big mound of rubble. If Fred switched on the headlights now it would be in sight. Fred would walk the two dozens of meters to the mound and set up tin cans at the foot of it. Then he would walk back, take up his gun and leaning against the bonnet of his car he would carefully take his aim.

The front and back sights would be in line, the surface of the far-off can shining in the muddy darkness ahead exactly behind them, and he would pull the trigger.

The "Boom!" would seem tremendous in the stillness, but it would quickly be swallowed up by the forest. The tin-can would have taken off like a rocket, and now Fred would hear the hollow clattering as it fell back on the gravel.

And so what?

Well, for a start this was very different from shooting at a club, where some asshole with a drooling voice would yell: "Five rounds -load!"

Then, when all the shooters would be standing at their benches, all in the same, compulsory stance, the asshole would yell: "When you're ready - begin!"

Then all the shooters would start firing with their oversized small-caliber pistols, making tiny, invisible dot-holes on the cardboard-target twenty-five meters away (or missing the target altogether).

After several minutes all the shooters would finally have put down their gun with the barrel exposed and the empty magazine presented openly. Then the range-officer (the asshole, that is to say) would walk from bench to bench, checking that all the guns were safely unloaded, and finally holler out: "Range is clear - move forward and patch!"

And all the little shitters would rush to their targets to count the holes and patch them up after the asshole had come by to comment on their group-size.

This was not Fred's idea of shooting.

Let's be honest about this! For him, whatever it might be down there was the enemy, and unless he missed he wanted to see something happening - he wanted to see the enemy jump, burst or topple over!

To shoot at something that showed no reaction was so boring that Fred's frustrated concentration would quickly fade away, and his bullets would fly anywhere...

Well, here in the depths of the forest Fred had found a spot where he could shoot in just the way that pleased him, where he could do his own thing. Of course this was illegal, but he only came here in the dead of the night, and no human being would ever know about it.

Can something, which is known and felt by nobody (and never will be), except for a single person who gains pleasure out of it, really be considered illegal, immoral, unjust..?

In a philosophical sense Fred guessed the answer was no. This was just like masturbation - nobody else's business unless it is done in public.

What about the forest itself?

Well, the forest is like an expanse of water - if you dip something in, the water will close around the object. If the object sinks, the water will fill in the space above it and close the surface again. The surface will always recover its perfect smoothness, whatever you throw into the water.

Even the commotion made by a swimming creature will eventually flatten out again. In a way this is infuriating, but on the other hand it allows you to do your own thing confidently, knowing that any real progress will be within yourself. Only progress will be recorded - the marks of all your struggles will kindly be wiped out by the world.

So the forest, in its neutral grandness, would peacefully swallow up whatever Fred had to let out of himself, and keep his secret for him, together with all the other mysteries it had in safe-keeping.

Fred opened the door of his car. The light inside went on. It wasn't a very bright light, hardly for map-reading. In fact it illuminated mainly the leg-room. There was another lamp, an adjustable spot-light overhead featuring an individual switch specially for reading inside the car - whatever might be said about American cars, all these little extras and gadgets sure make up for comfort and you miss them in any other car once you've had an American, inadequate though they may be in other ways.

Fred pulled out a shovel from behind the front seats and set himself to work. He dug out a shallow, broad puddle-bed in the gravel-path beside his car.

Then he pulled out a large plastic-sheet from his car and laid out the hole with it, secured its edges and corners with some large stones.

He stood back and looked at his work in the light spilling out from the doorway of the car.

The car, dimly lit from within, looked incongruous in the otherwise profoundly dark forest.

And yet, was it really so much out of place? Its shiny blue body glistened like a pool of fresh water. Its fluid lines all tended towards the grill, suggesting a desire, an aspiration. The nose of the car was outstretched towards new smells, ready to suck in fresh, unknown winds (to cool its motor-block as well as to mix some samples with fuel in the carburetor so as to burn it in the cylinders and spurt out the result from its double exhaust-pipe, polluting the environment).

The car, with its suggestively aggressive looks, might have appeared from among the trees for the first time in the history of life. It was born in the hidden depths of the forest, where Nature still experiments with her creative powers, far from the woodless, easily overviewed plains where mankind has settled itself with its well-controlled machinery which leaves no chance to any new form of spirit and life...

The Mustang was born! It was ready to surge forward into the grey world of mankind and attack established norms!

But for its first testing sortie it had chosen the dark hours of night, the time when all mysterious creatures of the woods, never as yet seen by any human eye, will spread out their tender wings for their maiden-flight, to test their freshly created abilities in the harsh world of the outside which won't spare them if they fail and never makes any allowances.

Man himself had once come out of the forest in very much the same way...

Man had left the forest first, but then the Mustang had come to join him...

Fred loved his car..!

What was this bullshit Fred was going on about? That fucking car had been made in a stinking factory in some stinking, crime-ridden town in some state of America which probably still believed in capital "punishment"!

That was many years ago. Now the car was old, and like the mysterious process of fermentation which makes precious wine out of ordinary grape-juice, in this same sense the car had developed a soul of its own, something which was beyond the control of the simple engineers who had originally designed and built it...

Fred loved his car!

What the hell was he going on about? He had better get back to work!

He walked up to the car, unafraid of the two big, as yet lightless eyes and the snarling grill between them, walked past it letting his hand casually brush against the whole length of the coachwork and opened the boot. He took out the big box with the bags full of powder and carried it to the shallow basin he had built. He set the box down in the middle of the basin. Then he took out a huge, full canister from the boot and put it down next to the basin.

There wasn't too much else to do just now.

At three o'clock he opened the canister and poured the fuel into the basin. The boxful of heroin became an island in a sea of petrol.

Fred lit himself a cigarette and waited.

It took only a little while till Fred saw the light of a car. The car was still on the road, far to the left behind the trees, but it was slowing down. Now the light beams were turning towards Fred, and as the car passed over a bump a whole section of tree-tops was illuminated.

Soon Fred could hear the sound of an engine. It was a growling, low-revving engine, probably with plenty of grunt, but certainly not of the elaborate sort.

Now Fred was standing in the blinding light-beam. The high-legged car, doubtlessly a tough four-wheel-drive, was coming closer at a great pace. In front of Fred it stopped short with a quick squeak of tortured brakes and the light switched to low-beam.

As Fred silently sucked on his cigarette the doors opened and three men clambered out. A large, fat bully with a rather bloated, red face came up to Fred while the two others discreetly stayed back, standing on either side of the elbow-high bonnet of their Jeep.

Before the bully had a chance to say anything Fred asked calmly: “Where’s the girl?”

“Well now,” said the bully. He didn’t have an unfriendly face, his expression was merely ironic, because he obviously didn’t take Fred seriously as an opponent. “There’s three of us and you’re all alone. What do you expect?” His voice was very dry. He made a droll movement of the hand towards Fred’s left hip. “I can see that you are armed, but we’re well trained. You wouldn’t have a chance.”

“How do you know that I’m alone?” asked Fred, the light shining in his dark eyes.

“Who would your men be, my friend? Someone hidden among the trees around here?” he laughed “Don’t be ridiculous. Just let me take that box here...” he bent down.

“Stop it!” said Fred so sharply that the man looked up.

“Now you wouldn’t want to do anything silly, would you?” the man half whispered. “We’ll shoot you!” he added.

Fred blew out some smoke. It whirled away, showing off nicely in the lights of the car.

The bully had caught the smell of spilt petrol. There was no need to explain, but Fred enjoyed this moment of power: “If you shoot or hit me, I’ll fall, and if I fall, the cigarette will fall with me and set off the fuel. Your damned box with all its contents will go up with it.” He made a pause, sucked on his cigarette, blew out some more smoke and continued: “You’d better hand over the girl. If you haven’t got her with you, come back tomorrow.”

The bully straightened himself, mumbling. He walked back to his car.

Fred was standing all alone next to his puddle of fuel. Despite all his precautions he was still at the mercy of those three men. He was dependant on the decision they were going to make.

But even for a complete fool there remains some dignity in lighting his own cigarette, something he does only for himself. He can pretend that he isn’t here just because of the others - he is also here to smoke his cigarette. He isn’t just waiting - he has something of his own to do. That gives him a sense of independence, and thus of sovereignty.

The girl was brought out of the car. Yes, it was her, no doubt about it, the living version of the woman in the fridge! Fred stared at her, completely amazed.

The bully pulled her by the hand, swung her forward and let her go. She caught herself up just before falling into the dirt, and the bully shouted: “Go! go over to that gentleman!”

The girl half turned round. “Why? Who is he? What’s happening?”

Her voice, though scared, was fluid and clear.

“Don’t ask! Go!” the bully called out, annoyed.

“I’m a friend,” Fred said softly. “You’re part of a bargain; go and sit in my car.”

The girl obeyed.

Fred opened the door on his side and lowered himself into his seat.

“Just a moment!” the bully shouted. He rushed up with a gun in his hand. “Let me check that powder!”

Fred had switched the engine on. He left it idling.

The door was still open, the bully had bent down next to it and was examining the contents of the box. His gun was pointed at Fred.

“Okay, go!” he said after a while and lowered his gun.

Fred put in the first gear, dropped his cigarette and drove violently off, the gravel spurting out from under his rear tyres. The fire blazed up, the bully’s yell was drowned in the flames and Fred pulled the door shut.

The Mustang was bouncing up and down on the rough gravel-path. Fred pulled into the next side-track on the left and drove hard. The car was slithering sideways, its wheels spinning and churning up mud, the engine angrily revving higher, as they crossed some puddles. But then they turned into the road, the ride became smooth and Fred quickly shifted through the gears till they reached a high and steady cruising-speed. 

The girl half turned round in her seat. “Who the hell are you?!” she asked, an admiring undertone in her voice.

Fred looked sideways at her and wondered when he had had his last female passenger. He couldn’t remember. He hardly ever had any passengers at all, and usually the seat next to him was clattered with maps and various other papers.

“Who are you?” the girl asked again.

“It doesn’t matter...” said Fred.

“Come on, tell me your name!”

“Fred Stroehm.”

“Well, go on, talk! Tell me about yourself!”

Fred took his eyes off the road and looked at her. He loved her for what she had just said.

“I was a friend of your sister.” he said.

“Maria didn’t have any friends like you,” the girl answered, “were you one of her customers?”

Was there some bitter irony in her voice?

“No.” said Fred simply. He didn’t add anything.

Hanna remained quiet for a moment. Then she said: “I know who you are - you’re the guy with the advertisement photos?”

Fred was completely astounded. “How did you find that out?”

Hanna bit her lower lip. “Maria talked about you a lot, in later years, that is... At first she hadn’t mentioned you to anybody, for many years, trying to work out for herself why she wasn’t suited for those damned photos. Then she realized the photos were just a bad excuse, and that in reality you were desperately trying to make contact. She still reckoned she had failed and started to hope that she would meet you again to make up for it.”

“What??” Fred was astounded.

“I tried to explain to her that you were just a hunter after his prey, but she insisted that, if that were the case, you would have finished the job and not let her go. You were looking for something that you obviously couldn’t find and she felt guilty for it.”

Fred was looking at the road in front of him, expertly steering the Mustang around the curves, but he couldn’t believe it.

Hanna was going on: “Maria did very badly at school and she never managed to study. She became a prostitute in the hope of meeting you again...”

This story was getting worse and worse.

“I tried to tell her that you must have forgotten about her, but she felt sure you hadn’t found anybody else and that she ought to help you.”

“She didn’t even hate me?” Fred asked, incredulously.

“Oh yes, she hated you with a passion. But as long as she didn’t know what was wrong with her, why she had failed with you, she couldn’t approach anybody else. I tried to advise her into seeking professional assistance, but she refused.”

“So she became a prostitute...” said Fred softly.

“Yes, and at first she almost liked it, gained some kind of pleasure out of it - you know, a job well done. The men liked her because she was young and pretty. But gradually it started to disgust her, and then she got involved with those drug-dealers. She didn’t have to sleep with her customers any more, not most of them, anyway - she just sold them the dope and still made the same kind of money.”

Fred suddenly had some awful doubt. “You know that she is dead, don’t you?” he asked softly.

“Yes...” she answered distractedly.

They were silent for a while. There was only the hum of the eight cylinders.

Hanna broke the silence first: “Won’t they follow us?”

“They can never catch up with us.” Fred answered with finality.

“So you got me in exchange of the dope?” asked Hanna.

“That’s right.”

“Why did you burn it then? You broke the contract! You might even have killed that fat bully! He wasn’t the worst of them, you know...”

“That fat bully was going to shoot me as soon as I was out of reach of the precious box. They couldn’t afford to lose you. I did the only possible thing. Besides, there isn’t any fairness or ethics in that kind of interaction.”

Hanna didn’t answer.

“What are we doing now?” she asked after a while.

“We’re going to see some gentleman in the eastern suburbs and scare the living shit out of him!” answered Fred.

They had come into town by now. Fred followed the directions to the highway so as to drive back to the eastern suburbs along that other possible way.

"You know you are to blame for Maria's death, don't you?" asked Hanna.

"Yes." said Fred, softly but definitely.

"She always hoped that you would turn up again... Now you finally did, when it was too late."

"Yes..." said Fred patiently.

"But how did you get mixed up with those drug-dealers?"

Fred told her how he had found Maria in the morgue and how everything had started from there. "That is how I re-entered this unfortunate story." he concluded.

Now Hanna told her part of the story. Maria had come to visit her in her small flat some evening. She was still wearing her funny prostitute-clothes and wanted to take a shower before doing anything else. But then she would have something very important to tell Hanna. Just when she was coming out of the shower there was a knock on the door. Without waiting for an answer three men came into the flat. One of them pulled a knife and they went for Maria. Hanna was going to intervene, but they took care of her too. Maria defended herself so vigorously that she got accidentally stabbed and died within seconds. By this time Hanna had become hysterical and was dragged out of the flat. She was bound and gagged inside of a car, and while one man remained with her, the two others wanted to go and fetch Maria's body, but in the meantime the whole house had become alive with bustling people wanting to know what was going on, and so Maria's body had to be abandoned in Hanna's flat.

Fred knew the rest of the story already. Maria's body was mistaken for Hanna, and the drug-dealers wanted this mistake to be kept up so that the police-investigation wouldn't be directed towards Maria's surroundings, which might have been fatal. So they arranged for the corpse to be stolen out of the morgue before formal identification could occur. At this stage Fred had entered the game. Despite Fred's efforts the mistake in identification remained ("that shows a lot about my parents" Hanna commented bitterly).

So all was still going well for the drug-dealers. They kept Hanna as a prisoner, hoping that she might eventually play Maria's part in case Maria's public appearance became indispensable at some stage. They were still working on means to make Hanna into a trustworthy slave when Fred saved her.

"Your sister was probably trying to run away and go into business for herself." Fred commented.

"I reckon so," said Hanna, "and she got herself killed in the process. There couldn't have been another ending to her fucked-up life."

Fred didn't answer to that one. It thrust the whole responsibility upon him, because he had initially fucked up Maria's life.

"Why don't we just denounce the whole bunch to the police?" asked Hanna. "We're two witnesses, and between ourselves we know enough to get them all locked up."

"No, no," said Fred, "the organization would lose some of its members, but it would survive. I think we can find a way of destroying the whole of it."

"And get ourselves killed..." added Hanna.

"There is some risk..." said Fred dreamily. He remained quiet for a little moment, but then he clapped one hand against the steering-wheel and said rather vehemently: "This is my case! I'm going to see it through to the end! I've been a shitter for long enough!"

"You want to be a hero?" Hanna asked very calmly.

"Yes, probably it's as simple as that." answered Fred just as calmly.

They didn't talk from there on till they reached the house of the rich gentleman.

Fred drove into the driveway hardly slowing down and came to a skidding halt on the gravel in front of the proud mansion.

He jumped out of the car and rushed to the big oak-wood door where he pressed the bell-button with more vigour than was necessary. By the time the door opened, Hanna was standing beside him. After all, she also wished to pay back these people, and since Fred was going on with this so confidently, she went along with him.

The gentleman had a shock when he saw the two of them, and this time he didn't try to hide it.

"You?!" he called out. Then slightly calming down: "What happened?"

"Well," said Fred, "I freed Hanna Sedgewick as you can see, and burnt the dope. Your men will still be lost somewhere in the forest, I guess."

"You burnt the dope?" the man asked incredulously.

"Yeah," said Fred, "and we came here to make you an offer."

"What can you offer me?! you fool!" the man said with real despair. "I'm finished!!" He seemed ready to bolt off, to disappear in the dark depths of the house behind him.

"Calm down." said Fred, and he pulled the left side of his jacket away from his body, uncovering the grip of his pistol. "I'm quick on the draw." he added rather proudly.

"Even if you don't denounce me to the police..." the man said, and his wrinkled face, with the lines of sternness and competence so deeply embedded that they couldn't fade away altogether, looked very inadequately anguished, "...if I can't pay for the dope the company will kill me!"

He remained quiet for a moment, his face going through the strangest and most unfitting contortions.

Then he added with a whelping voice: "I haven't got that kind of money, and you burnt the dope!"

"Here's my offer," said Fred, feeling stronger and stronger: "we won't denounce you if you will participate in following up the pipeline and destroying the organization. Once this is done, you will have nothing more to fear from anybody. You will be able to come back here and resume your normal life. You will lose nothing, neither your money nor your standing."

"But who are you?" asked the man, some real curiosity flickering up in his humid eyes.

"I'm just me," said Fred, "I'm not a member of anything, if that's what you mean."

"But you're crazy!" said the man with a certain amount of returning desperation. "You don't know what you're letting yourself in for!"

"I'm eager to find out!" said Fred smiling.

It occurred to him that Hanna might not be going along with this. He looked at her, standing by his side, out of the corner of his eye. She was quite pale, but she was watching the man Fred had in his grip with interest and perhaps some mild cruelty.

"How many men have you got?" asked the gentleman, regaining some of his standing.

"As I say," answered Fred, "there's just me," and he politely half turned towards Hanna, "and possibly her."

Hanna looked up at the gentleman and there was a slight half-smile on the corner of her lips. She nodded slowly. Then she asked, taking initiative for the first time in this interaction: "And how many men have you got?"

The gentleman answered seriously: "I can raise an army of ten men, maybe more."

"Right." said Fred. "When do you meet with your end of the pipeline for the next time?"

"In less than a week..." answered the gentleman, the nervousness showing through his voice again.

"Can you gather your men till then?" asked Fred.

"I hope so..." answered the gentleman.

"We'll keep in touch." said Fred. "By the way, what is your name?"

"Didn't you know?" asked the gentleman, quite astonished. "I'm Wolfensberger."

"Okay," said Fred, "see you, Mr Wolfensberger."

He turned away and walked off to his car. Hanna followed and Wolfensberger slowly shut the big oak-wood door.

As soon as they were in the car, Hanna said to Fred: "You're totally crazy, you know that?"

"Yeah," answered Fred as he drove off, "but I've been sensible for long enough and it didn't do me any good."

"Anyway, I'll be going along with this. I want to see this organization destroyed. But before we start I think we should take some precautions. We have to make sure that the police get all the information we hold in case of our death."

"We can do that." said Fred, rather surprised by Hanna's professional attitude.

"And where are you taking me now?" asked Hanna.

"Wherever you want to go." answered Fred.

"Well, I've got nowhere to go. My flat will have been cleared by this time, I expect, since I'm supposed to be dead, and I could hardly show up at my parents, just like that..."

"You can stay at my place," said Fred, smiled and added: "Don't worry, I won't make any advances."

"I wouldn't care if you did." said Hanna.

"You mean you'd say yes?" asked Fred, talking as unemotionally as possible.

"No." answered Hanna dryly and added nothing.

Fred didn't know what to make out of this and so he remained silent.

 

The next day, in the afternoon, Fred and Hanna were sitting in the kitchen at the table, eating what would have to be called breakfast.

Hanna was very casually dressed and not feeling uncomfortable in Fred's presence at all.

"You don't have a girl-friend, obviously..." she said.

"No." answered Fred, but didn't elaborate, since indulging in self-pity usually ended in his having a monologue - he had learnt that long ago.

"And you never had one?"

"Never..."

Hanna looked at him sharply. Perhaps she was trying to understand why.

"What about you?" asked Fred. "Do you have a boy-friend?"

"If I did," answered Hanna and looked at Fred over the edge of the cup in her hand, "I wouldn't be here with you, would I? I would have rushed to him as soon as I could."

"Well, you must have some kind of friends," said Fred, "how come you don't make contact with them and just let them continue believing in your death?"

"Obviously none of them were good enough friends to realize that the body wasn't mine at the funeral." said Hanna and frowned at Fred quizzically.

"I reckon only your parents got a proper chance of identifying the body." said Fred. "It's their fault."

"Maybe..." said Hanna and dismissed the matter. "Anyway, I don't feel like seeing any of my former friends just now."

"But how come you don't have a boy-friend, a pretty girl like you?"

"And how come you don't have a girl-friend?" she asked back. "Though I must say that you have a boring face. That perpetually tired look in your eyes, it's as though you had shutters over your real face."

"This is my real face." said Fred, slightly upset.

"Well, tiredness is only a state. It can't belong to the hardware of a face. Your real face is capable of more than just showing this steady-state mask all the time."

"Aha..." said Fred. This was getting too personal.

"Now you would gladly have sex with me, here and now, wouldn't you?" Hanna asked, perfectly sure of herself.

Fred almost choked on a piece of bread in his mouth. He coughed and it sent tears into his eyes. But he caught himself up, looked straight into Hanna's eyes, gave her a wolfish grin and said: "Yes, here and now!"

"That's what I thought," said Hanna calmly, "you're trying to lead your life upside down. Well, you won't get it from me."

"Are you trying to send me up?" asked Fred with a roaring undertone in his voice. "What do you mean, leading my life upside down?"

"Why do you think I wouldn't want you?" asked Hanna. "Do you believe I've got no desires?"

"I guess I'm not good enough, that's all..." said Fred.

"You've got a well built body, you're okay. Though I must say that the extinguished, listless air you have around you is not attractive."

"If..." Fred began.

"Don't go any further, I know what you're going to say. But that's not the way. In fact, that's what I call leading a life upside down." She remained quiet for a moment, and Fred had nothing to say either. Then she began to explain a few things: "What I want is someone who knows where he's going, and who is aiming at something which seems worthwhile to me as well. Now this doesn't describe you at all. You're aiming nowhere and whatever you're doing you don't consider worthwhile yourself. And I suppose you have the fantasy that by gaining access to sexual satisfaction this would suddenly change; but believe me, it's the other way round. Once you know where you're heading and happy with it, I know you will find someone."

Fred interrupted her dreamy speech: "Well, suppose I make an inhuman effort to do something that seems worthwhile, and then nobody throws in with me - I'd be worse off than I am now!"

"This is not just an empty, uncommitting piece of general wisdom coming from an unconcerned representative of the female gender. This is something I as a person say to you as a person..."

"You mean it's a promise..?"

"Shut up now, I won't be tricked into saying any more!" This came so suddenly that Fred looked up. She gave him a queer smile containing traces of embarrassment. So Fred said nothing more.

But he kept thinking about this. That talk about finding someone who is aiming at something which seems worthwhile to her as well, seemed too technical to Fred - what about falling in love? something that just happens, catches you unawares and then clings on?

But when this happens you can't just rush forward. You have to make sure the other person deserves you...

The topic wouldn't be brought up again between Hanna and Fred, not for the time being, anyway.

For the next few days Hanna stayed with Fred. She did some shopping and cooking for both of them and spent the rest of the day reading and wondering about her future. Fred was working again, but when he came home in the early morning she would come out of bed for a while and keep him company as he drank a cup of tea before going to sleep. It was quite a new feeling for him to be greeted by someone he liked and cared for at the end of his lonely round-trip in the dark.

One night he saw a fox sneaking around the courthouse. As Fred flashed his light at him, the fox stood still and looked in his direction with eyes redly glistening in the light. His mane formed an aurora around his pointed face, strong neck and powerful shoulders, and he was holding his bushy tail proudly off the ground. After a moment he turned his head away and trotted casually off on a business of his own.

Normally this would just have been a random, meaningless occurrence for Fred, but today he made a mental note to mention it to Hanna when he came home, and the occurrence became meaningful, making the whole night into something special.

Perhaps Hanna would have something of her own to tell about a fox too, or about some other animal, some pet...

Thoughts of this kind were cruising through Fred's mind all night, and when they got interrupted it didn't matter, because something else would soon remind him of Hanna in some other way, and his thoughts would get started in some new direction just as worthwhile.

So in the next few days Fred got so used to being with Hanna that he could hardly imagine his life without her, aimlessly lounging in his empty flat when he wasn't working...

It was hard to tell what really made everything so different - there were many tiny little things, not one big item on which you could put your finger. Instead of hanging about, nowadays he was chatting, smiling, sometimes talking earnestly and listening actively, and he felt that he was internally evolving again.

But then the day came when it was time to ring up Wolfensberger.

 

 Fred was doing some weight-lifting. This was something he had started doing regularly as a teenager, imagining all kinds of things...

Of course progress had been slow at first, but at that age he still basically believed in himself and had stuck with it. Nowadays Fred continued the work because it was a habit. His muscles didn’t grow any bigger anymore, but he maintained what he had, and he was glad for what he had, because it gave him a sense of self-value when he wasn’t in his car, or even when he wasn’t in his clothes either...

So every second day, usually in the early morning before going to bed, Fred sat down on a chair with the weights on his lap. After breathing carefully and deeply for a moment his mind would be empty of everything except for the desire to contract muscles. Then he would take the weights into one hand, make sure the hand was comfortable on the bar, then lift the weights off the lap and lower them to the full length of his arm, at the side of the chair. From there on the real exercise would begin. He would pull the weights up over his shoulder, then push them up over his head, to the full length of his arm. As he then lowered the weights again he would pantingly whisper “one” and start all over, whispering “two” this time.

After having done this twenty times it would be the turn of the other arm.

This exercise didn’t take a lot of time - only a few minutes every second day - but it seemed to make a big difference on Fred’s body. He would have been proud, as a little boy, to see what he was going to look like as a man and to see the strength he had, enabling him to lift up his whole body-weight with a single arm, almost far enough for him to touch the bar with his chin.

But while he exercised Fred didn’t look at his body, even though he undressed to the waist for freedom of movement and cooling down, but followed with his eyes the movement of the ugly, blackened chunks of metal in his hand.

Thus he didn’t know what he looked like when he heard the knock on the door of his bedroom and answered “Yeah..?” rather breathlessly.

Hanna burst into the room and saw his body with knots of concentrated power, moving under the skin, all over it.

She was taken aback. “Sorry..!” she said. But she didn’t leave the room. She just stood there, waiting, watching him.

Fred didn’t disrupt the exercise. It consisted of twenty liftings in a row. If he stopped now, he would have to start from the beginning again, later, while his arm was still tired from what it was doing now. Hanna would just have to wait.

He was breathing regularly and hard, breathing out while lowering the weights and greedily gulping for air while hauling them up. He wasn’t ashamed of the sounds he was making.

In the past he used to be ashamed of these breathing sounds. One day his mother had surprised him in the midst of physical exertion by bursting into the room, and he had almost dropped the weights (they were smaller weights in those days) on his head.

Fred had never liked to admit his dreams to his parents. He felt that if they knew about them they would destroy them for him. The dream to become strong was one of them - it had to be hidden.

Of course it was unavoidable that his mother, who cleaned the room for him (not out of kindness, but because she felt responsible for the whole house) or at least directed some hired woman into it for the job, would know about the weights. Of course she didn’t know how regularly he exercised. Maybe she considered them just as a toy, and Fred wouldn’t have wanted her to know that this “toy” exerted him as much as a violent orgasm would.

So today, Fred pondered, was the first time he exercised in full view of somebody, and there seemed to be no cause for embarrassment, so that his muscles were doing the job for him just as well as if he were alone.

“Twenty” gasped Fred and lowered the weights into his lap. “Ah...” he said and smiled up at Hanna.

“I never would have thought...” said Hanna, and seemed almost delighted.

“What?” asked Fred.

“That you were so strong!”

“Did I look weak?” asked Fred with a mocking smile.

“No, not at all...” Hanna had difficulties making herself clear. “Only you seemed not to care...”

“To care for what?” asked Fred slightly puzzled.

“For your own strength, for anything...” Her voice was drifting off.

“You mean I seem more human now?” he asked dryly, seriously.

“Yes!” she answered happily. “I’m glad I saw you do it!”

“Well...” said Fred, smiling again. “And by the way, what did you want?”

“It’s almost useless to ask now.” said Hanna. “I just wanted to make sure that you weren’t entering the game of the drug-dealers because of me, to impress me or something...” She sighed and wobbled her nose comically. “But I can see now that you really have some energy of your own!”

“What about you?” asked Fred. “Are you sure you want to come along?”

“Yes, I am. I want to see the destruction of this organization.”

“Okay,” said Fred, stood up and looked at his watch lying next to the pillow on his bed. “See you in... eight hours then!”

“Good night!” said Hanna.

“Good night.” said Fred, not realizing that for her there wasn’t much of the night left.

When he woke up in the early afternoon it was almost time to start moving. If he stayed in bed much longer, Hanna would come and shake him. He would have liked that, but there was no use in lounging in bed for so much longer, so he got up.

Hanna and Fred had a quick meal together, then they packed a few things into the car and started off.

They arrived at the meeting-point, the parking-lot in front of a disaffected factory-block, a few minutes too early. The truck wasn’t there yet, nor was any familiar vehicle, but Fred reckoned they were at the right place because of a dashing, red Volkswagen Golf GTI with spoilers and skirts and over-large tyres incongruously standing among the rubble. He stopped the Mustang somewhere nearby and climbed out of his seat.

There were two men patiently sitting in the Golf. But now they left their car and slammed both doors shut, on either side, in quick succession. They came walking towards Fred, their jackets flapping in the wind, unhurriedly and casually. They were both tall and young and had rather blank faces expressing nothing but a bit of ironical pride. They might have come straight from a catalogue for menswear, and the red car behind them would have fitted into the picture as well, though the desolated surroundings would have been a mark of originality that those catalogue-images usually lack.

Hanna had left the Mustang too by now and come around the long bonnet to stand next to Fred, offering him moral support.

“I think these two were involved in the killing of my sister and in my kidnapping!” she whispered.

“Why can’t you be sure?” asked Fred, giving vent to some annoyance, but Hanna didn’t answer.

While Hanna and Fred were standing rather closely together the two men were standing widely apart, their hands hanging casually along their hips. Fred was inadvertently reminded of some scene in a spaghetti-western.

“Well now, who have we got here?” asked one of the men in a well-carrying baritone-voice.

“That’s the whore’s sister and her little boy-friend!” commented the other man, as though he were pleasantly surprised.

“Yeah, it sure is...” said the first man. “The two who got us into this mess!”

It wasn’t quite clear what was going to happen next, but they got interrupted because a third car was coming. It was Wolfenberger’s smart limousine.

Wolfensberger stopped his car exactly between the two groups and got out. “Hello, everybody.” he said taking a quick look around.

“What do we need those two loving doves for?” asked one of the blank men and made a throw-away gesture towards Hanna and Fred.

“If anything happens to them, the police will be after us.” said Wolfensberger. “But as far as closing down the pipeline is concerned, they might be of some help.” He said all this quite matter-of-factly.

“But why should we close down the pipe-line?” asked the other blank man.

Wolfensberger turned a stern look on him: “I thought we had gone over all of this already. We took the dope but we can’t pay for it. How can we avoid breaking the contract?”

“Let’s get the money from somewhere else! Let’s rob a bank! Why should we obey those two chickens there?!”

“Then you’ll be denounced.” answered Wolfensberger calmly. But maybe he didn’t trust his authority to the full, or maybe he wasn’t too sure of his own decision. Anyway, he felt like adding something, and the tone of his voice suggested that he very much desired for his men to agree with him: “I think we’ve been part of this organization for far too long and become much too dependant. We’ve made a lot of money out of it, but now, before it is too late, the time has come to invest somewhere else.”

The two blank men looked down at their feet and said nothing. Wolfensberger was their master-mind after all.

Then the next car came. It was the battered jeep Fred had met in the forest on that arranged meeting of his when he had daringly delivered Hanna from the gangsters. In some strange way he felt that he and Hanna were progressing backwards again.

Men were already leaving the jeep before it had stopped properly, and the doors banged shut as it came to a sudden halt. Now the driver clambered out of the jeep. He had a toad-like figure just like his three mates, and he wore a broad panama-hat just like them. In fact he was the fat bully Fred had almost fried to death that night some time ago.

Fred reflected on wearing hats while driving - there would be no chance of doing such a thing in his low-slung Mustang. Only high-legged four-wheel-drives allow such things.

All of this was slightly ridiculous - Wolfensberger, the gentleman in his limousine, the “thinking” gangster, then the two sleek thugs in the sporty Golf, and finally the jeep full of hat-wearing city-cowboys. It seemed like a slightly over-stylized plot of a cheap gangster-film in the best American tradition.

What about Fred? The guy with uniform-like clothes, a beautiful girl at his side and driving a shining-blue Mustang? What would he represent in such a plot?

The private detective?

No, hardly, because he lacked the tall, good looks, and even more important, the dark sun-glasses.

But how had all of this come about? Was all of this just a played act for Fred’s benefit? These doubts always...!

What this really meant was that there is some truth in cheap American gangster-stories, Fred decided.

By now the fat bully had seen and recognized him.

"Hey!" he hollered out and came towards Fred, "it's the smoker!"

"I don't generally smoke." answered Fred calmly, but he really was impressed by the big mass of flesh moving towards him.

"Let me bash you up!" said the bully and curled his lips into a frightening non-smile.

Then Fred swept the corner of his jacket away from his hip with his left hand and grabbed his Ruger GP-100 with his right.

The bully was taken aback when he suddenly saw the rather large gun appear in Fred's hand.

"Please!" said Wolfensberger and held up his hands in desperation, "none of that!"

"Why shouldn't we fight it out?" asked the bully. His face had never been a pretty sight, but with all the peeling blisters imperfectly covering it up, with rosy fresh skin showing underneath, it looked worse than ever. "If that guy is a real man he'll put away his gun and stand out an honest fist-fight."

"Come on, now!" said Wolfensberger. "You're too heavy!"

Fred was still holding his revolver in his hand. "What about an arm-wrestle?" he suggested.

"Yeah!" answered another of the toad-like men standing behind the bully