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´╗┐Title: The Hoofer
Author: Miller, Walter M., 1923-1996
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.
Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "The Hoofer" ***

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    _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 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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

It rolled a couple of yards up the road. He leaped after it and kicked
it again. When he had finished with it, he stood panting and angry, but
feeling 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? It
means--God, what does it mean? It means out in Big Bottomless, where
Earth's like a fat moon with fuzzy mold growing on it. Mold, that's all
you are, just mold.

A dog barked, and he wondered if he had been muttering aloud. He came to
a fence-gap and paused in the darkness. The road wound around and came
up 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 coat
pocket and sloshed it. Still over half a pint. He decided to kill it. It
wouldn't do to go home with a bottle sticking out of his pocket. He
stood there in the night wind, sipping at it, and watching the reddish
moon 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 it
over with, get it over with now. He opened the fence-gap, slipped
through, and closed it firmly behind him. He retrieved his bag, and
waded quietly through the tall grass until he reached the hedge which
divided an area of sickly peach trees from the field. He got over the
hedge somehow, and started through the trees toward the house. He
stumbled 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. He
stopped.

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

One of Marie's brothers. Hogey stood frozen in the shadow of a peach
tree, 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 shadow
in 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 in
recognition. Then he trotted around Hogey, panting doggy affection and
dancing an invitation to romp. The man whistled from the porch. The dog
froze, then trotted quickly back up the slope.

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

The screen door slammed again, and the porch light went out. Hogey stood
there staring, unable to think. Somewhere beyond the window lights
were--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 a
shovel, and his foot plunged into something that went _squelch_ and
swallowed the foot past the ankle. He fell forward into a heap of sand,
and his foot went deeper into the sloppy wetness.

He lay there with his stinging forehead on his arms, cursing softly and
crying. Finally he rolled over, pulled his foot out of the mess, and
took off his shoes. They were full of mud--sticky sandy mud.

The dark world was reeling about him, and the wind was dragging at his
breath. He fell back against the sand pile and let his feet sink in the
mud hole and wriggled his toes. He was laughing soundlessly, and his
face was wet in the wind. He couldn't think. He couldn't remember where
he 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 cooled
his feet, and the sand was soft behind him. He saw a rocket go up on a
tail 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 licking
wetly at his ear and cheek. He pushed the animal away with a low curse
and mopped at the side of his face. He stirred, and groaned. His feet
were burning up! He tried to pull them toward him, but they wouldn't
budge. There was something wrong with his legs.

For an instant he stared wildly around in the night. Then he remembered
where 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 the
cruel trap into which he had accidentally stumbled. A pile of old
boards, a careful stack of new lumber, a pick and shovel, a sand-pile,
heaps of fresh-turned earth, and a concrete mixer--well, it added up.

He gripped his ankles and pulled, but his feet wouldn't budge. In sudden
terror, he tried to stand up, but his ankles were clutched by the
concrete too, and he fell back in the sand with a low moan. He lay still
for several minutes, considering carefully.

He pulled at his left foot. It was locked in a vise. He tugged even more
desperately at his right foot. It was equally immovable.

He sat up with a whimper and clawed at the rough concrete until his
nails tore and his fingertips bled. The surface still felt damp, but it
had hardened while he slept.

He sat there stunned until Hooky began licking at his scuffed fingers.
He shouldered the dog away, and dug his hands into the sand-pile to stop
the bleeding. Hooky licked at his face, panting love.

"Get away!" he croaked savagely.

The dog whined softly, trotted a short distance away, circled, and came
back to crouch down in the sand directly before Hogey, inching forward
experimentally.

Hogey gripped fistfuls of the dry sand and cursed between his teeth,
while his eyes wandered over the sky. They came to rest on the sliver of
light--the space station--rising in the west, floating out in Big
Bottomless where the gang was--Nichols and Guerrera and Lavrenti and
Fats. And he wasn't forgetting Keesey, the rookie who'd replaced him.

Keesey would have a rough time for a while--rough as a cob. The pit was
no playground. The first time you went out of the station in a suit, the
pit got you. Everything was falling, and you fell, with it. Everything.
The skeletons of steel, the tire-shaped station, the spheres and docks
and nightmare shapes--all tied together by umbilical cables and flexible
tubes. Like some crazy sea-thing they seemed, floating in a black ocean
with its tentacles bound together by drifting strands in the dark tide
that bore it.

       *       *       *       *       *

Everything was pain-bright or dead black, and it wheeled around you, and
you went nuts trying to figure which way was down. In fact, it took you
months to teach your body that _all_ ways were down and that the pit was
bottomless.

He became conscious of a plaintive sound in the wind, and froze to
listen.

It was a baby crying.

It was nearly a minute before he got the significance of it. It hit him
where he lived, and he began jerking frantically at his encased feet and
sobbing low in his throat. They'd hear him if he kept that up. He
stopped and covered his ears to close out the cry of his firstborn. A
light went on in the house, and when it went off again, the infant's cry
had ceased.

Another rocket went up from the station, and he cursed it. Space was a
disease, and he had it.

"Help!" he cried out suddenly. "I'm stuck! Help me, help me!"

He knew he was yelling hysterically at the sky and fighting the
relentless concrete that clutched his feet, and after a moment he
stopped.

The light was on in the house again, and he heard faint sounds. The
stirring-about woke the baby again, and once more the infant's wail came
on the breeze.

_Make the kid shut up, make the kid shut up ..._

But that was no good. It wasn't the kid's fault. It wasn't Marie's
fault. No fathers allowed in space, they said, but it wasn't their fault
either. They were right, and he had only himself to blame. The kid was
an accident, but that didn't change anything. Not a thing in the world.
It remained a tragedy.

A tumbler had no business with a family, but what was a man going to do?
Take a skinning knife, boy, and make yourself a eunuch. But that was no
good either. They needed bulls out there in the pit, not steers. And
when a man came down from a year's hitch, what was he going to do? Live
in a lonely shack and read books for kicks? Because you were a man, you
sought out a woman. And because she was a woman, she got a kid, and that
was the end of it. It was nobody's fault, nobody's at all.

He stared at the red eye of Mars low in the southwest. They were running
out there now, and next year he would have been on the long long run ...

But there was no use thinking about it. Next year and the years after
belonged to _little_ Hogey.

He sat there with his feet locked in the solid concrete of the footing,
staring out into Big Bottomless while his son's cry came from the house
and the Hauptman menfolk came wading through the tall grass in search of
someone who had cried out. His feet were stuck tight, and he wouldn't
ever get them out. He was sobbing softly when they found him.



Transcriber's Note:

    This etext was produced from _Fantastic Universe_ September 1955.
    Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that the U.S.
    copyright on this publication was renewed. Minor spelling and
    typographical errors have been corrected without note.





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