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The hoofer, p.1

The Hoofer, page 1


The Hoofer

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The Hoofer

  Produced by Greg Weeks, Stephen Blundell and the OnlineDistributed Proofreading Team at

  _A wayfarer's return from a far country to his wife and family may be a shining experience, a kind of second honeymoon. Or it may be so shadowed by Time's relentless tyranny that the changes which have occurred in his absence can lead only to tragedy and despair. This rarely discerning, warmly human story by a brilliant newcomer to the science fantasy field is told with no pulling of punches, and its adroit unfolding will astound you._

  the hoofer

  _by ... Walter M. Miller, Jr._

  A space rover has no business with a family. But what can a man in the full vigor of youth do--if his heart cries out for a home?

  They all knew he was a spacer because of the white goggle marks on hissun-scorched face, and so they tolerated him and helped him. They evenmade allowances for him when he staggered and fell in the aisle of thebus while pursuing the harassed little housewife from seat to seat andcajoling her to sit and talk with him.

  Having fallen, he decided to sleep in the aisle. Two men helped him tothe back of the bus, dumped him on the rear seat, and tucked his ginbottle safely out of sight. After all, he had not seen Earth for ninemonths, and judging by the crusted matter about his eyelids, he couldn'thave seen it too well now, even if he had been sober. Glare-blindness,gravity-legs, and agoraphobia were excuses for a lot of things, when aman was just back from Big Bottomless. And who could blame a man foracting strangely?

  Minutes later, he was back up the aisle and swaying giddily over thelittle housewife. "How!" he said. "Me Chief Broken Wing. You wantaIndian wrestle?"

  The girl, who sat nervously staring at him, smiled wanly, and shook herhead.

  "Quiet li'l pigeon, aren'tcha?" he burbled affectionately, crashing intothe seat beside her.

  The two men slid out of their seats, and a hand clamped his shoulder."Come on, Broken Wing, let's go back to bed."

  "My name's Hogey," he said. "Big Hogey Parker. I was just kidding aboutbeing a Indian."

  "Yeah. Come on, let's go have a drink." They got him on his feet, andled him stumbling back down the aisle.

  "My ma was half Cherokee, see? That's how come I said it. You wanta heara war whoop? Real stuff."

  "Never mind."

  He cupped his hands to his mouth and favored them with a blood-curdlingproof of his ancestry, while the female passengers stirred restlesslyand hunched in their seats. The driver stopped the bus and went back towarn him against any further display. The driver flashed a deputy'sbadge and threatened to turn him over to a constable.

  "I gotta get home," Big Hogey told him. "I got me a son now, that's why.You know? A little baby pigeon of a son. Haven't seen him yet."

  "Will you just sit still and be quiet then, eh?"

  Big Hogey nodded emphatically. "Shorry, officer, I didn't mean to makeany trouble."

  When the bus started again, he fell on his side and lay still. He maderetching sounds for a time, then rested, snoring softly. The bus driverwoke him again at Caine's junction, retrieved his gin bottle from behindthe seat, and helped him down the aisle and out of the bus.

  Big Hogey stumbled about for a moment, then sat down hard in the gravelat the shoulder of the road. The driver paused with one foot on thestep, looking around. There was not even a store at the road junction,but only a freight building next to the railroad track, a couple offarmhouses at the edge of a side-road, and, just across the way, adeserted filling station with a sagging roof. The land was Great Plainscountry, treeless, barren, and rolling.

  Big Hogey got up and staggered around in front of the bus, clutching atit for support, losing his duffle bag.

  "Hey, watch the traffic!" The driver warned. With a surge of unwelcomecompassion he trotted around after his troublesome passenger, taking hisarm as he sagged again. "You crossing?"

  "Yah," Hogey muttered. "Lemme alone, I'm okay."

  The driver started across the highway with him. The traffic was sparse,but fast and dangerous in the central ninety-mile lane.

  "I'm okay," Hogey kept protesting. "I'm a tumbler, ya know? Gravity'sgot me. Damn gravity. I'm not used to gravity, ya know? I used to be atumbler--_huk!_--only now I gotta be a hoofer. 'Count of li'l Hogey. Youknow about li'l Hogey?"

  "Yeah. Your son. Come on."

  "Say, you gotta son? I bet you gotta son."

  "Two kids," said the driver, catching Hogey's bag as it slipped from hisshoulder. "Both girls."

  "Say, you oughta be home with them kids. Man oughta stick with hisfamily. You oughta get another job." Hogey eyed him owlishly, waggled amoralistic finger, skidded on the gravel as they stepped onto theopposite shoulder, and sprawled again.

  The driver blew a weary breath, looked down at him, and shook his head.Maybe it'd be kinder to find a constable after all. This guy could gethimself killed, wandering around loose.

  "Somebody supposed to meet you?" he asked, squinting around at the dustyhills.

  "_Huk!_--who, me?" Hogey giggled, belched, and shook his head. "Nope.Nobody knows I'm coming. S'prise. I'm supposed to be here a week ago."He looked up at the driver with a pained expression. "Week late, yaknow? Marie's gonna be sore--woo-_hoo_!--is she gonna be sore!" Hewaggled his head severely at the ground.

  "Which way are you going?" the driver grunted impatiently.

  Hogey pointed down the side-road that led back into the hills. "Marie'spop's place. You know where? 'Bout three miles from here. Gotta walk, Iguess."

  "Don't," the driver warned. "You sit there by the culvert till you get aride. Okay?"

  Hogey nodded forlornly.

  "Now stay out of the road," the driver warned, then hurried back acrossthe highway. Moments later, the atomic battery-driven motors dronedmournfully, and the bus pulled away.

  Big Hogey blinked after it, rubbing the back of his neck. "Nice people,"he said. "Nice buncha people. All hoofers."

  With a grunt and a lurch, he got to his feet, but his legs wouldn't workright. With his tumbler's reflexes, he fought to right himself withfrantic arm motions, but gravity claimed him, and he went stumbling intothe ditch.

  "Damn legs, damn crazy legs!" he cried.

  The bottom of the ditch was wet, and he crawled up the embankment withmud-soaked knees, and sat on the shoulder again. The gin bottle wasstill intact. He had himself a long fiery drink, and it warmed him deepdown. He blinked around at the gaunt and treeless land.

  The sun was almost down, forge-red on a dusty horizon. Theblood-streaked sky faded into sulphurous yellow toward the zenith, andthe very air that hung over the land seemed full of yellow smoke, theomnipresent dust of the plains.

  A farm truck turned onto the side-road and moaned away, its driverhardly glancing at the dark young man who sat swaying on his duffle bagnear the culvert. Hogey scarcely noticed the vehicle. He just keptstaring at the crazy sun.

  He shook his head. It wasn't really the sun. The sun, the real sun, wasa hateful eye-sizzling horror in the dead black pit. It paintedeverything with pure white pain, and you saw things by the reflectedpain-light. The fat red sun was strictly a phoney, and it didn't foolhim any. He hated it for what he knew it was behind the gory mask, andfor what it had done to his eyes.

  * * * * *

  With a grunt, he got to his feet, managed to shoulder the duffle bag,and started off down the middle of the farm road, lurching from side toside, and keeping his eyes on the rolling distances. Another car turnedonto the side-road, honking angrily.

  Hogey tried to turn around to look at it, but he forgot to shift hisfooting. He staggered and went down on the pavement. The car's tiresscreeched on the hot asphalt. Hogey lay there for a moment, groaning.That one had hurt his hip. A car door slammed and a bi
g man with aflorid face got out and stalked toward him, looking angry.

  "What the hell's the matter with you, fella?" he drawled. "You soused?Man, you've really got a load."

  Hogey got up doggedly, shaking his head to clear it. "Space legs," heprevaricated. "Got space legs. Can't stand the gravity."

  The burly farmer retrieved his gin bottle for him, still miraculouslyunbroken. "Here's your gravity," he grunted. "Listen, fella, you betterget home pronto."

  "Pronto? Hey, I'm no Mex. Honest, I'm just space burned. You know?"

  "Yeah. Say, who are you, anyway? Do you live around here?"

  It was obvious that the big man had taken him for a hobo or a tramp.Hogey pulled himself together. "Goin' to the Hauptman's place. Marie.You know Marie?"

  The farmer's eyebrows went up. "Marie Hauptman? Sure I know her. Onlyshe's Marie Parker now. Has been, nigh on six years. Say--" He paused,then gaped. "You ain't her husband by any chance?"

  "Hogey, that's me. Big Hogey Parker."

  "Well, I'll be--! Get in the car. I'm going right past John Hauptman'splace. Boy, you're in no shape to walk it."

  He grinned wryly, waggled his head, and helped Hogey and his bag intothe back seat. A woman with a sun-wrinkled neck sat rigidly beside thefarmer in the front, and she neither greeted the passenger nor lookedaround.

  "They don't make cars like this anymore," the farmer called over thegrowl of the ancient gasoline engine and the grind of gears. "You canhave them new atomics with their loads of hot isotopes under the seat.Ain't safe, I say--eh, Martha?"

  The woman with the sun-baked neck quivered her head slightly. "A carlike this was good enough for Pa, an' I reckon it's good enough for us,"she drawled mournfully.

  Five minutes later the car drew in to the side of the road. "Reckon youcan walk it from here," the farmer said. "That's Hauptman's road just upahead."

  He helped Hogey out of the car and drove away without looking back tosee if Hogey stayed on his feet. The woman with the sun-baked neck wassuddenly talking garrulously in his direction.

  It was twilight. The sun had set, and the yellow sky was turning gray.Hogey was too tired to go on, and his legs would no longer hold him. Heblinked around at the land, got his eyes focused, and found what lookedlike Hauptman's place on a distant hillside. It was a big frame housesurrounded by a wheatfield, and a few scrawny trees. Having located it,he stretched out in the tall grass beyond the ditch to take a littlerest.

  Somewhere dogs were barking, and a cricket sang creaking monotony in thegrass. Once there was the distant thunder of a rocket blast from thelaunching station six miles to the west, but it faded quickly. AnA-motored convertible whined past on the road, but Hogey went unseen.

  When he awoke, it was night, and he was shivering. His stomach wasscreeching, and his nerves dancing with high voltages. He sat up andgroped for his watch, then remembered he had pawned it after the pokergame. Remembering the game and the results of the game made him winceand bite his lip and grope for the bottle again.

  He sat breathing heavily for a moment after the stiff drink. Equatingtime to position had become second nature with him, but he had to thinkfor a moment because his defective vision prevented him from seeing theEarth-crescent.

  Vega was almost straight above him in the late August sky, so he knew itwasn't much after sundown--probably about eight o'clock. He bracedhimself with another swallow of gin, picked himself up and got back tothe road, feeling a little sobered after the nap.

  He limped on up the pavement and turned left at the narrow drive thatled between barbed-wire fences toward the Hauptman farmhouse, fivehundred yards or so from the farm road. The fields on his left belongedto Marie's father, he knew. He was getting close--close to home andwoman and child.

  He dropped the bag suddenly and leaned against a fence post, rolling hishead on his forearms and choking in spasms of air. He was shaking allover, and his belly writhed. He wanted to turn and run. He wanted tocrawl out in the grass and hide.

  What were they going to say? And Marie, Marie most of all. How was hegoing to tell her about the money?

  Six hitches in space, and every time the promise had been the same: _Onemore tour, baby, and we'll have enough dough, and then I'll quit forgood. One more time, and we'll have our stake--enough to open a littlebusiness, or buy a house with a mortgage and get a job._

  And she had waited, but the money had never been quite enough until thistime. This time the tour had lasted nine months, and he had signed onfor every run from station to moon-base to pick up the bonuses. And thistime he'd made it. Two weeks ago, there had been forty-eight hundred inthe bank. And now ...

  "_Why?_" he groaned, striking his forehead against his forearms. His armslipped, and his head hit the top of the fencepost, and the pain blindedhim for a moment. He staggered back into the road with a low roar, wipedblood from his forehead, and savagely kicked his bag.

  It rolled a couple of yards up the road. He leaped after it and kickedit again. When he had finished with it, he stood panting and angry, butfeeling better. He shouldered the bag and hiked on toward the farmhouse.

  They're hoofers, that's all--just an Earth-chained bunch of hoofers,even Marie. And I'm a tumbler. A born tumbler. Know what that means? Itmeans--God, what does it mean? It means out in Big Bottomless, whereEarth's like a fat moon with fuzzy mold growing on it. Mold, that's allyou are, just mold.

  A dog barked, and he wondered if he had been muttering aloud. He came toa fence-gap and paused in the darkness. The road wound around and cameup the hill in front of the house. Maybe they were sitting on the porch.Maybe they'd already heard him coming. Maybe ...

  He was trembling again. He fished the fifth of gin out of his coatpocket and sloshed it. Still over half a pint. He decided to kill it. Itwouldn't do to go home with a bottle sticking out of his pocket. Hestood there in the night wind, sipping at it, and watching the reddishmoon come up in the east. The moon looked as phoney as the setting sun.

  He straightened in sudden determination. It had to be sometime. Get itover with, get it over with now. He opened the fence-gap, slippedthrough, and closed it firmly behind him. He retrieved his bag, andwaded quietly through the tall grass until he reached the hedge whichdivided an area of sickly peach trees from the field. He got over thehedge somehow, and started through the trees toward the house. Hestumbled over some old boards, and they clattered.

  "_Shhh!_" he hissed, and moved on.

  The dogs were barking angrily, and he heard a screen door slam. Hestopped.

  "Ho there!" a male voice called experimentally from the house.

  One of Marie's brothers. Hogey stood frozen in the shadow of a peachtree, waiting.

  "Anybody out there?" the man called again.

  Hogey waited, then heard the man muttering, "Sic 'im, boy, sic 'im."

  The hound's bark became eager. The animal came chasing down the slope,and stopped ten feet away to crouch and bark frantically at the shadowin the gloom. He knew the dog.

  "Hooky!" he whispered. "Hooky boy--here!"

  The dog stopped barking, sniffed, trotted closer, and went "_Rrrooff!_"Then he started sniffing suspiciously again.

  "Easy, Hooky, here boy!" he whispered.

  The dog came forward silently, sniffed his hand, and whined inrecognition. Then he trotted around Hogey, panting doggy affection anddancing an invitation to romp. The man whistled from the porch. The dogfroze, then trotted quickly back up the slope.

  "Nothing, eh, Hooky?" the man on the porch said. "Chasin' armadillosagain, eh?"

  The screen door slammed again, and the porch light went out. Hogey stoodthere staring, unable to think. Somewhere beyond the window lightswere--his woman, his son.

  What the hell was a tumbler doing with a woman and a son?

  After perhaps a minute, he stepped forward again. He tripped over ashovel, and his foot plunged into something that went _squelch_ andswallowed the foot past the ankle. He fell forward into a heap of sand,and his foot went deeper into the sloppy wetness.
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  He lay there with his stinging forehead on his arms, cursing softly andcrying. Finally he rolled over, pulled his foot out of the mess, andtook off his shoes. They were full of mud--sticky sandy mud.

  The dark world was reeling about him, and the wind was dragging at hisbreath. He fell back against the sand pile and let his feet sink in themud hole and wriggled his toes. He was laughing soundlessly, and hisface was wet in the wind. He couldn't think. He couldn't remember wherehe was and why, and he stopped caring, and after a while he felt better.

  The stars were swimming over him, dancing crazily, and the mud cooledhis feet, and the sand was soft behind him. He saw a rocket go up on atail of flame from the station, and waited for the sound of its blast,but he was already asleep when it came.

  It was far past midnight when he became conscious of the dog lickingwetly at his ear and cheek. He pushed the animal away with a low curseand mopped at the side of his face. He stirred, and groaned. His feetwere burning up! He tried to pull them toward him, but they wouldn'tbudge. There was something wrong with his legs.

  For an instant he stared wildly around in the night. Then he rememberedwhere he was, closed his eyes and shuddered. When he opened them again,the moon had emerged from behind a cloud, and he could see clearly thecruel trap into which he had accidentally stumbled. A pile of oldboards, a careful stack of new lumber, a pick and
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