Wild West Adventures of a Philosopher Sheriff.
I enjoyed this story as a complete movie in a dream. The whole plotline, start to finish, was there, enough to start writing and fleshing it out. The dream offered a very original twist on the Western. What can one unarmed philosopher do against a gang with loaded guns? (Second edit, Jan 2018)
An Unexpected New Job.
I’m on my way to Eagle Rock, Idaho, where I’m expected. It’s to teach older kids in the growing school, as the town is slowly expanding in populace and size. Teaching is probably the only option out here I have, as I am a philosopher, a profession for which this so-called ‘Wild West’, as some have started to label it, has little use. Being here helps me escape my father’s harsh judgments, that are so contrary to his humanist philosophies. I love breathing the open sights, so rare in my home city. And regularly breathing in wallops of the smoke of our locomotive brings some realism to my dreamy romanticism. The West can be a harsh land and I am a greenhorn, as a local traveler told me.
As the train meanders slowly upwards towards the high plain where Eagle Rock resides, I divide my attention between the sights outside, fir trees in bright sunlight on grey rocky slopes, and the attractive blonde in my compartment. She’s very gently curved, very light in skin and hair. Her scarlet lips, which she touts if she disagrees with her father, jump out at me over the four rows between us. Sometimes she looks back, her protective father likewise. I assume his daughter takes after her mother when I compare her to his bloated belly framed in merchants tweed. The quality of his clothes makes him look at the least two ranks above me. I am afraid my thin appearance, small rounded glasses, and secretary look may give him little confidence in me being capable to provide for his daughter. At the same time, I can’t look much of a threat, for he doesn’t tell his bodyguard to warn me off. Ah, well, we can all dream. I just feel happy when we arrive at the station, I know she’s seen me and I’ve seen her.
There’s a lot of people on the platform. I watch father and daughter, followed by their bodyguard walk back to the carriage wagons to unload some big boxes. A cart comes forward and the bodyguard starts loading up. I look over the crowd to see if anyone has come to pick me up. As I see no one coming forward, I assume somebody might wait in front of the station. I pick up my suitcase and backpack, both a bit overloaded with books, and weightlift them around the station building. Softly struggling around the corner, I pass two big men in dungarees, who push a smaller man with some aggression up against the station wall. “You is gonna pay for us lifting your pack, daddy, or you have a problem.” “But, but I didn’t even ask,” stammers the little man. One of the big men, I can only assume them to be brothers, bars my path. “I think you need a hand too, boy.” He bends his big face towards mine and I can sense a huge portion of the barely restrained brute force. Around us, many people watch what happens, without trying to be open about it. Other people scurry their light luggage in a wider circle around us. I look straight in the man’s face and suggest, “That will be fine if you release that man yonder, and increase the speed of your services.” “Are you gonna argue with us? Mike, this little rat wants to argue. See that?” Mike turns his head while holding the small man in place. Around me an eerie silence falls, while people move along in slow motion, trying to not be noticed by these two bullies, pretending to be porters. “Well, Tom, what you do about that?” says Mike. Tom spreads his arms, “I think someone wants a lesson.” “That someone? Is that you?” I ask Tom innocently. “Me? No!? You need a lesson,” Tom explains, deliberately poking his pointing finger into my chest. I shake my head, “Well, I think you need a lesson, a lesson in economics. I think you lose an awful lot of clients and thus money, for taking time to pressure money out of a few, while you could serve so many more. This, what you are doing here, takes time!” “Whaddayamean?” frowns Tom. I point to people who have passed by and hurry away once at a safer distance. A small group of locals in front of the station even seems to discuss what’s happening it feels like, but they don’t interfere. “If you worked very hard for everyone and started running you could collect some coins from many more passengers.” I count very publicly looking around, ignoring Tom’s finger resting on my chest, “Seven travelers with big luggage left, perhaps more if people would actually like and trust you two.” Tom and Mike look around. The small man against the wall and several bystanders nod ever so slightly yes. “If you think too long about this, it’ll cost you more customers,” I add. Tom and Mike look at each other and look a bit insecure around. Mike lets the little men very slowly sink to the ground as if he seeks to avoid anyone noticing his earlier intimidation tactics. Most of the people close to us have stopped moving their luggage and watch the proceedings. “Ladies and gentlemen,” I shout to them, “these two good porters will help all your luggage for a few coins to the front of the station and onto carts if needed. Who’d like some assistance?” More fingers than I even hoped to go up. Tom and Mike cannot help but smile. I gesture Tom to make a small bow. Small applause follows. I feel it has to do everything with me solving the tension; the brothers consider it applause for their enthusiasm to get to work for everyone. And they start running. Tom helps me first.
After I hand Tom a few coins, he even taps his forehead as a master of grace and then runs back to the station for more lifting. Aside from me, I see the little man skitter away while waving a ‘thank you’ towards me. I have just gained some confidence that’ll make some new friends in my new town. When I want to pick up my luggage again I’m approached by the little group of locals that I noticed earlier. “That was a mighty fine intervention, young sir,” says a small well-rounded man with a grey mustache and dusty bowler hat. He and several others surround me with brimming smiles, “We’ve discussed among us how to value your actions. I must say, the way you handled the Barkers was a relief for us all.”
It seems this is my welcoming committee. There are three well-dressed men, two elderly ladies, and a big guy with a gun over his shoulder. “Darius Vigli..something?” one of the well-dressed men asks. I nod a little overwhelmed. “Darius Viglius, or in American “Darius Vigil” I help them. “Welcome! We’re so happy to see what you can do for us. If you follow us, we’ll get you everything you need.” The big man with the gun picks my suitcase up without asking. I nod thanks to him, which he ignores. As we march, towards the main street, I see the merchant and his daughter enter a brightly white-painted hotel called the Herald. It gives me a feeling of regret that it seems she’s not to stay. The committee meanwhile asks about my journey. It’s all pleasant banter. They march me, to my own surprise straight up to the sheriff’s office. “Do I have to be written in or something?” I ask. “No,” says a lady with a heavy German accent, “It’s your new home.” “Prison?” I stutter with unease. “You silly,” says the other woman, “you’re to be our new sheriff!” I stop shocked and they all stop. “Sheriff?” I say, “I’ve never even touched a gun and I wasn’t planning on ever using one!” “We know, philosopher eh?” says the second lady, a large meaty woman with a red sweaty face, “Martin convinced us we should try you in this position though. Given what you pulled at the station we have high hopes.” She beams. One of the men, a small stingy guy in a black suit, taps his stetson, “We’ve seen you in action, sir. It was quite a sight. That’s the kind of peacekeeping we want over here if we want to progress towards civilization.” “But what if the other side has got a gun?” I ask with a squeak in my voice. “You can be teaching and all, sir, but we need a sheriff more. So the one job goes with the other,” says Martin with an iron undertone. He then pats my arm understandingly, as if this closes the discussion, he gestures the little man with the stetson. “Erik?” Erik comes very close smiling up to me and holds out a star of the office. Given the fact that I can’t even afford a train ride back to Denver, let alone my hometown Philadelphia, I have little choice. Beaming he pins the sheriff’s star onto my chest. The others applaud, except the big man with the gun. He sighs and not in a reassuring way. That’s how I became the philosopher sheriff of Eagle Rock.
Wordslinger vs. Gunslingers
In the beginning, was the word. Well, word has it that the Boyle brothers are coming to town. These two gunslingers are wanted for bank robbery in Butte, yet no one has dared to arrest them yet. Martin brings me the telex at the front of the school, where I’ll be teaching later that day. The school is a three-roomed building of yellow painted wood. I haven’t been inside yet and hoped to enter the first time, only to be stopped by news of these dangerous men coming to spoil my party. The telex from downriver Rexburg reports that the brothers passed through and are headed our way. I ask him if Gregor is in town. Martin shakes his head, “Hunting expedition, up the mountains.” “Any other man in town with pistols or guns?” I ask. Martin shakes his head, “Enough guns, huge lack of men with the courage to stand their ground against these guys. People here are thinking; don’t we have a sheriff for this? Or do they wonder, why they should bother about crimes in another state?” “Because, perhaps, maybe, they still carry the booty around?” I try hopefully. Martin smiles as he walks away. A few paces away he turns and lifts his bowler, “Now that’s smart, maybe not philosophy, but smart.” and walks on. “I hate you!” I shout.
Now I can start thinking about how to stop two criminals with guns. I also seriously consider looking the other way. I grab my hat, a mix between a gambler and an Amish hat, from the bench next to the apple tree in front of the school. I start walking over to the bank, considering why taking a stand might matter. Existential philosophy, like Kierkegaard qualms about, here is so much more simple and direct. The consequences also; they can kill.
First I warn the bank of a possible robbery. Then I arrange some other interesting matters, like, a lookout who can scout people approaching our town. I find myself a chair and await the arrival of the Boyles leaning against the stone wall of the bank. I really enjoy the sun on my arms, as if it’s the last hour being in this body. Life is almost good, and I doze off into the afternoon. I am awoken by Bertie, Martin’s son, pressing me that he saw two unknown men approaching our town. I hand Bertie my hat and send him into the bank. I take off my sheriff’s star and slide it into a breast pocket. And finally, when I see two strangers heading towards the bank, I rise and walk out to the street. The men barely give me a look, as they steer their horses to a tying pole next to the bank. They have the same air of bully as the Barkers, but smarter. Their clothing is dusty, smells and shows wear. They’ve been on the road for a while. I rub my fingers and try not to give in to the fear.
“Hello, gentlemen, what is the kind of life you most desire to live?” I ask them straightforwardly. The Boyles turn their heads to me. Both men have unshaven heads, with piercing blue eyes. Long coats, big floppy hats, and pistols at their side. “What ze fuck?” says the one with a dark mustache and heavy eyebrows. His brother, a slightly lighter version of the other, less mustache though and perhaps a bit more beard also sprouts a broken nose to help me distinct him better. “Who are you?” says Broken Nose. I smile my warmest smile. “It’s an essential question in life. Are you living the life you desire?” “What ze fuck is that zo you, mongrel?” Mustache fires back. His brother continues to tie up their horses. “Zey must hav a Church clown here.” Broken Nose mumbles. I assume he’s wrongfully assuming I’m here to get them to church. “I’ll break his fuckin legs,” mutters Mustache. Clearly, the men are of German descent, and sport Americanized names. “Come on guys. You just arrived and I am curious about your aims in life. It might go wrong if you have no thinking about it.” Both men now stand straight and their piercing eyes stare at me a bit puzzled at my persistence. “Listen fuck, ve can do our own zinking. So piss off.” Mustache warns me.
It’s time to play clearer cards. “Well, eh…, knowing you’re criminals and all, I was wondering if perhaps making different choices would be much safer. Like, offer more real freedom.” I emphasize the word real. The Boyles look at each other and step slowly away from their horses. Then they throw their jackets wide. I stare at hands hovering above pistols ready to reach. “We iz frie, idiot,” Mustache claims. I nod, “Well, not being safe inside towns, because there’s a price on your heads, isn’t really free, is it? Having to look over your shoulders everywhere. Sleeping hidden in the woods, avoiding bounty hunters and all.” “How ze fuck, do you dare to speak zu us like zis. The hell, ve are frie! And NO ONE vill take zat from us!” Broken Nose thunders at me, while Mustache scans the street. His hands tremble above the gun. Only one thing is stopping them, at the moment, from putting me full of lead. There’s no one on the streets anymore. This looks and feels, rightfully so, very suspicious to them. I make slow calming gestures, implying there are many ears listening. That makes them a bit more careful and gives me space to continue, “I mean being hunted means less freedom. Now that the telegraph speaks to our town, we can know who’s coming, no? And that means..” “Piss off, little man, before ve shoot ye.” Broken Nose has had enough. “I’m unarmed,” I say and slowly spin around with my hands in the air. My thin frame and tight clothing make a hidden gun highly improbable. “Makes killing you easier.” he snorts. “No hasting here, please,” I seek to save myself, “Such cold-blooded murder would add mightily to the crime you’re currently wanted for. Would move you from a prison sentence for robbery to hanging for murder, now.” I gesture myself holding bars and hanging by the neck. “You aren’t charged with murder yet, are you?” I see the brothers barely holding on to restraint, yet somehow their puny brains must be wiser than they let on. “How do you know all thish about us?” Mustache wants to know. “Ah, glad you ask, I’m the sheriff here in town,” with two fingers I slowly retrieve my star from my breast pocket and pin it back on, “…and murdering sheriffs is hugely frowned upon.” “But if you haf no pishtol, you cannot shtop us, you havwit!!?” claims Mustache outraged and baffled at the same time. “Agreed!” the halfwit, I am, admits, “But then after I received this telex, I may have warned the armed guards in the bank that you boys were coming into town. They will kill you if you try anything. And any bounty hunter, believing you still have leftover money from that bank in Butte, would love to hunt too. Or they’ll hope you commit murder so the reward will be much higher for chasing you down. And to be safe, with murder, they might make it rather dead than alive.” They both now stare at the bank and back at me. I point upwards. For half a second a head with a big hat on top of the bank is visible. I let them draw their own conclusions of what hidden dangers our town inhabits. “So,” I continue, “I have a proposition for you. Either you leave our town quickly and peacefully and we won’t chase you, or you do violence and you’ll be dead soon. If you like, you can also surrender to me, get charged, do some years, and become really free men when you finish your sentence.” The men look at each other as if I am totally mad. After a short look at each other, they slowly move back in between their horses. Then in one fluid move, pulling themselves up by the saddle nob, they sit upon them with pulled-out pistols. “Shall I untie the horses for you?” I ask innocently. I see them biting through that spoiler of a smooth escape. So, they’re going. Apparently, a sweet surrender was too much to hope for. They have a hard time watching the bank, the roof of the bank, and me. They’re sweating a lot now. Very slowly I untie their horses and carefully hand them the reigns. Death fury sparks from their eyes towards me as they turn their horses towards the road. I can’t believe that I am getting away with it. “Always feel free to come back and surrender for a fair trial,” I say with my empty hands wide. The brothers give their horses the spurs and gallop away. I wait until they’re around the corner and sink down on the street where I am. I need a drink or three.
After twenty counts Mr. Morgan the bank manager comes out of the bank, followed by the grisly old guard Scotty, who holds an old shotgun. “Can I come down now?” shouts Bertie from the roof. He still wears my hat, which hides his age in the shadow. Some other people come out of their houses too. They show amazement in their eyes. Must be about the fact that I’m still alive. My heart is beating as if I just ran 200 meters and I don’t feel ready at all to deal with any admiration for my suicide action just yet. Somehow Bertie is already down and hands me back my hat before he runs off. I brush Mr. Morgan’s comforting hands off my shoulders. Enough touching for now. I slowly rise to avoid all eyes and walk, with rubber legs, back in the direction of the school. I’ll be teaching in about an hour. For now, I’ll leave another portion of existentialism alone. Even Kierkegaard’s failure to just embrace love in his life is too much for me right now. Perhaps some basic questions are good enough for a start. All those hopes dwindle when I approach the school. Exited noses press against the windows, with, smiling in the middle Bertie, who must have done a ‘tell-all’.
After school Martin waits for me at the bench near the tree. He gives me a piercing stare. “You’ve let two gunslingers escape,” he says after way too long. I blink confusedly. “I saved the town and the bank from an imminent attack. This was the best I could do,” I say to my own defense. Martin nods, “I understand. You’ve been very brave. Much better than I actually expected. But not quite according to the law.” “Next time you come and stop them!” I protest and walk away. Martin runs after me and then walks up with me. “I’m not criticizing you. I’m offering you a consideration.” “What is your role in town anyway?” I retort, “Mentoring me?” He nods his head and smiles, “Kind of, perhaps. I’m the judge.” “Well Mr. Judge, answer me this. Which is better? The town safe and protected or innocent dead bodies and justice done?” And I boot in the direction of the saloon.
Challenges at the bar
“Excuse me!” A man elbows me out of the way on his way to the bar. I pat his arm to constrain him gently. He jerks his arm away and looks down at me. Oh, no, another giant. Though not as long as the Barkers, he still reaches over 6 feet. And I may not be a lot smaller, thinner I am; much thinner. “Are you looking for trouble?” he shouts in my face. His eyes shine red with swollen veins. This guy must be loaded with booze. “Am I looking for trouble? Am I looking for trouble!?” I shout as I distance myself, “I’ll give you trouble!!” I raise my fists start slowly make classic English boxing moves. Now we have all the attention in the bar. “Jake, that’s the new sheriff you’re getting at!” a voice behind me shouts. Another one goes, “Today he chased two gunslingers out of town, barehanded. You better watch out for him.” Jake looks a bit puzzled. All the comments conflict with what he sees; one dopey lightweight. Then he gets his focus back on me and raises his fists as well. I get the first punch in. And the second. Beng. Whop. Both on my own left and right cheek, each impacting hard. The third strike I cowardly hand myself floors me. Jake didn’t even get the time to move a single muscle. Huge silence. “That guy is a raving lunatic.” Jake jammers. Everybody starts laughing their ass off and Jake flees the saloon. I raise and pick up my hat. I make a small bow to my audience and crawl back up to the bar. Two men beside me at the bar pat my shoulders. “You are a fun sheriff. Hope you stay alive.” says a slightly colored man next to me. “I hope so too. I hope so too,” I agree with him.
Moments later a rough hand manhandles my shoulder and I get a breath of boozed-up air in my face. It’s Tom Barker. “Hullo, stranger. I hear you is sheriff now in town. But that can’t be true. You is too small and weak.” “It is true, Tom. I am the sheriff. Don’t let me have a reason to arrest you.” I say to his face. “You couldn’t arrest me. You is too small and weak.” “You just said that.” “I know I just said that. If I got angry I could make you into pulver.” “Pulverize me, you mean?” “Yeah. That.” “So Tom, better go home and stop drinking.” “I will have another one.” “No, not if you do what’s good for you.” “No one is gonna stop me. You ain’t gonna stop me, sheriff!! You is too small and weak.” “I AM SMALL AND WEAK!” “YES, YOU ARE SMALL AND TINY!” It takes him time to really register what we are shouting. “YES, I AM SMALL AND TINY AND CRAAAAZY,” I shout back right up his face. I give it all I’ve got. He falls silent as if something clicks in his brain. Suddenly he looks at me with new eyes. “You is funny sheriff. I like you.” Two meaty arms hug me and push out a lot of air. “I like you too Tom. Now Go Home.” I manage. “But I am not aggressive,” he almost shouts in my face. “No,” I say, “but you are very very drunk.” That message too, registers. His face turns sad, “That is so true.” He stumbles a few paces backward and turns. Then he stumbles forward out of the saloon.
For the second time that evening, I get pats on the back. “Wow Sheriff, two in one night. You’re making a name for yourself here.” says the colored guy. I feel drained, yet give it a go. I stick out my hand and mumble, “Darius Vigil.” “Emerald Morgenstern, at your service,” he replies and shakes my hand. We both smile. Emerald turns out to be a very interesting guy. He was born a slave named Emerald by his mother. Being the bastard son of a plantation owner, he got a bit more slack, enough to be despised by the whites and be distrusted by the other slaves. During the war, he escaped to the North, where he found refuge with a Jewish merchant, who learned him how to trade. As a kind of gratitude, he kept the merchant’s last name. Emerald now ran one of the two general stores in town, the one that had more clothing and no food at all. Because of his color, Emerald makes damn sure to always deliver above expectations. Just so people will have a reason to look beyond his color.
(night and new school scenes, and a week later)
It must be all the drinking. Like clockwork when I’m at the bar somone will try to be funny with me. As someone breathes alcohol in my neck, I am fed up with it. “I hear you are smart Sheriff. People tell me you can handle yourself. Now show me what you’ve got.” I turn around and face another monster. This one wears leather all over. He looks like he works at the smithy. His muscles support that idea, so do his burned hair and rooted face. “Show me what you’ve got!” He shows a dangerous undercurrent of anger, with which he gives me a nasty punch, that has me stumble back four places. A sharp pain rips through one of my ribs. Emerald wants to step in, but I wave him back. “Okay,” I say, breathing heavily to catch my breath, “You want to see what I’ve got?” “Yeah, I’d like that,” the brute grins. What is that with this town, that so many simple-minded men want to fight to show who is boss? “Okay,” I say still panting, “let’s all make a circle.”
I stand against the bar facing the brute, in the forefront of the gathered crowd, at a good five paces. The rest of the bar has fallen silent. I see some men laughing expecting another stunt. Others look grim. The brute opposite me grins murder and hatred. I turn around and climb up on the bar, ignoring a sharp pain in the damaged rib, as I make an unwelcome move. On top, I rise and wave a quiet. “Before anything else, I have an announcement. I want everyone to listen well because I don’t want to have to repeat this night after night.” “Come down pussy and we can begin,” the brute spurns me. “Now you wait, you wanted this,” I say, “You wanted to see what I’ve got. And this is it.”
I stand straight and address everyone. “As all of you can see, I am the weakest man in this room. I have no muscles like you. I am not a trained fighter. I cannot beat physically anyone of you. I hate fighting. I’m like a child when it comes to fighting. So if anyone of you thinks, that beating me is a big thing, you’ll be disappointed. If anyone thinks beating me up, will make a man out of me, it doesn’t. I’ll cry and I admit it. Beating me up is like showing you’re stronger than a child. It’s a form of cowardice. You are all too strong for me. No need to prove it. I know. Also, know that I am the sheriff here. Last week I faced two gunslingers without any guns. I drove them out of town. With words. That’s my weapon and craft. I’ll use it best as I can to protect this town. I get paid for this, by all of you. If you wound me, you’ll pay the costs as well. If I get wounded, or you don’t want me as sheriff, know that then one of you will have to be sheriff and face whatever needs to be faced. Now, who wants to be sheriff and be a real big guy?” An eerie silence follows. I spread my arms. “Then if I am to be sheriff, please don’t make it more difficult as it is. I am new to this. I need your help. This town needs all of your help if it wants to become something more than a lawless border town.” Now the silence is one of more understanding. “Okay, sheriff, we got you. But don’t be too cocky smart on us. We don’t like that.” “Fair enough,” I throw in the direction of the caller, “keep me posted when it happens.” A face in the crowd smiles and touches his hat. Most men solemnly nod their approval. “And what about our fight?” shouts the brute who started it. I turn towards him, “You’ve seen what I got. I asked everyone to not play hero, thinking it’s brave to fight me. You’ve won! And you’ve seen what I got. Talk.” “Well, you ain’t a real man out here, when you can’t use yer fists!” The brute wants to step angrily forward when a few hands grab him from behind. He gets thrown out of the bar and the rest of the night people come up to talk to me; some of them are fathers, who hope their son will get as smart as me. But I have too many worries to feel secure or very open to conversation.
As I walk home, to my little house behind the sheriff’s office I wonder about my unease. All good and well. But the eerie silence, when I asked who wanted to be sheriff, tells me, there’s something I don’t yet know about this town. And it tells me, finding out is not something to look forward to.
Notes: This is not the final edit. There are two more scenes before a final kind of shoot-out moment and ending of the (rough) whole story. This should be enough to sense this concept can be something. Let me know in the comments. Positive vibes may make me speed up writing the rest, otherwise, I’ll be back anyway, because I personally start to like the concept... Looking for a TV-series idea anyone? :)
The Third Way: This story hopes to offer a way out of the dualistic “It’s either you or me” paradigm that so many Westerns offer. America seems to love us vs. them thinking. I also hope to open doors towards what in European policing is seen as essential: de-escalation. ‘Shoot first, talk later’ heightens aggression on all sides in the long run. We need alternatives to the ‘low voiced ubercertain committed men with special gifts in violence’ kind of heroes. Most normal people will avoid violence. And the smart ones do doubt, try things, and may come up with totally new ideas. Such uncertain, more fluid, heroes can help us start considering non-violent solutions to threats. Because I think the world needs much more of those.
How does Darius use philosophy? You might have been expecting a lot of quotes from brilliant historic figures. Sorry, Darius doesn’t quote a lot. It’s the attitude that he comes from. He rather asks questions himself. He tries to see the best in everyone. He’s a humanist in action. He helps people to think in their own best interest. He dares to do the unexpected, plays with the situation as it evolves. And just showing you can quote very well, may show knowledge, it doesn’t mean there’s wisdom as well.
Darius official name was before it was Americanized: Desiderius Viglius, after Desiderius Erasmus, the humanist who wrote “In Praise of Folly” and after Viglius, a humanist who countered harsh justice with considerations for a more balanced humane approach (unique in his time) and the idea of prevention of violence before it happened. So yes, his name is a pun. It also shows how many names slowly got Americanized, read made simpler, shorter, more English.