The Hoofer - Cover

The Hoofer

by Walter M. Miller

Public Domain

Science Fiction Story: 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.

Tags: Science Fiction   Novel-Classic  

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 his sun-scorched face, and so they tolerated him and helped him. They even made allowances for him when he staggered and fell in the aisle of the bus while pursuing the harassed little housewife from seat to seat and cajoling her to sit and talk with him.

Having fallen, he decided to sleep in the aisle. Two men helped him to the back of the bus, dumped him on the rear seat, and tucked his gin bottle safely out of sight. After all, he had not seen Earth for nine months, and judging by the crusted matter about his eyelids, he couldn’t have 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 a man was just back from Big Bottomless. And who could blame a man for acting strangely?

Minutes later, he was back up the aisle and swaying giddily over the little housewife. “How!” he said. “Me Chief Broken Wing. You wanta Indian wrestle?”

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

“Quiet li’l pigeon, aren’tcha?” he burbled affectionately, crashing into the 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 about being a Indian.”

“Yeah. Come on, let’s go have a drink.” They got him on his feet, and led him stumbling back down the aisle.

“My ma was half Cherokee, see? That’s how come I said it. You wanta hear a war whoop? Real stuff.”

“Never mind.”

He cupped his hands to his mouth and favored them with a blood-curdling proof of his ancestry, while the female passengers stirred restlessly and hunched in their seats. The driver stopped the bus and went back to warn him against any further display. The driver flashed a deputy’s badge 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 make any trouble.”

When the bus started again, he fell on his side and lay still. He made retching sounds for a time, then rested, snoring softly. The bus driver woke him again at Caine’s junction, retrieved his gin bottle from behind the 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 gravel at the shoulder of the road. The driver paused with one foot on the step, looking around. There was not even a store at the road junction, but only a freight building next to the railroad track, a couple of farmhouses at the edge of a side-road, and, just across the way, a deserted filling station with a sagging roof. The land was Great Plains country, treeless, barren, and rolling.

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

“Hey, watch the traffic!” The driver warned. With a surge of unwelcome compassion he trotted around after his troublesome passenger, taking his arm 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’s got me. Damn gravity. I’m not used to gravity, ya know? I used to be a tumbler--huk!--only now I gotta be a hoofer. ‘Count of li’l Hogey. You know 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 his shoulder. “Both girls.”

“Say, you oughta be home with them kids. Man oughta stick with his family. You oughta get another job.” Hogey eyed him owlishly, waggled a moralistic finger, skidded on the gravel as they stepped onto the opposite 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 get himself killed, wandering around loose.

“Somebody supposed to meet you?” he asked, squinting around at the dusty hills.

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, ya know? Marie’s gonna be sore--woo-hoo!--is she gonna be sore!” He waggled 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’s pop’s place. You know where? ‘Bout three miles from here. Gotta walk, I guess.”

“Don’t,” the driver warned. “You sit there by the culvert till you get a ride. Okay?”

Hogey nodded forlornly.

“Now stay out of the road,” the driver warned, then hurried back across the highway. Moments later, the atomic battery-driven motors droned mournfully, 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 work right. With his tumbler’s reflexes, he fought to right himself with frantic arm motions, but gravity claimed him, and he went stumbling into the ditch.

“Damn legs, damn crazy legs!” he cried.

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

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

A farm truck turned onto the side-road and moaned away, its driver hardly glancing at the dark young man who sat swaying on his duffle bag near the culvert. Hogey scarcely noticed the vehicle. He just kept staring at the crazy sun.

He shook his head. It wasn’t really the sun. The sun, the real sun, was a hateful eye-sizzling horror in the dead black pit. It painted everything with pure white pain, and you saw things by the reflected pain-light. The fat red sun was strictly a phoney, and it didn’t fool him any. He hated it for what he knew it was behind the gory mask, and for 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 to side, and keeping his eyes on the rolling distances. Another car turned onto the side-road, honking angrily.

Hogey tried to turn around to look at it, but he forgot to shift his footing. He staggered and went down on the pavement. The car’s tires screeched on the hot asphalt. Hogey lay there for a moment, groaning. That one had hurt his hip. A car door slammed and a big man with a florid 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,” he prevaricated. “Got space legs. Can’t stand the gravity.”

The burly farmer retrieved his gin bottle for him, still miraculously unbroken. “Here’s your gravity,” he grunted. “Listen, fella, you better get 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. Only she’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’s place. Boy, you’re in no shape to walk it.”

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

“They don’t make cars like this anymore,” the farmer called over the growl of the ancient gasoline engine and the grind of gears. “You can have 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 car like 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 you can walk it from here,” the farmer said. “That’s Hauptman’s road just up ahead.”

He helped Hogey out of the car and drove away without looking back to see if Hogey stayed on his feet. The woman with the sun-baked neck was suddenly 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. He blinked around at the land, got his eyes focused, and found what looked like Hauptman’s place on a distant hillside. It was a big frame house surrounded by a wheatfield, and a few scrawny trees. Having located it, he stretched out in the tall grass beyond the ditch to take a little rest.

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

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

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

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

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