When it’s twilight in a town like this and the street glows and the horses whisper or seem to whisper and the big cottonwoods behind the mercantile begin to whisper or seem to whisper and the creek along side the livery stable whispers and it is whispering certainly, then I always get a hankering to put down my guns for good, and all the ways of the gun which have run me so long, and stay in this sweet place when the other gunslingers in my outfit ride on in the morning. I’m always tired when this hankering comes on and thirsty and I start thinking about putting a boot up on the bar down the street and sanding off the corners of my throat with some bitter rye whiskey which is a hard medicine, but my medicine all these years. The hankering is a real hankering and I’ll talk about it. My guns are heavy, and the leather belt, one I had made outside of El Paso with an ornate stitchery in heavy golden saddle thread which makes a long loop of sunflowers along the whole thing, is also heavy, always wet with sweat and always every minute of every day filled with thirty-six thirty caliber pistol cartridges which bear their own weight. My guns are not twins except that they each weight plenty, the two revolving barrels coated with silver and nickel and the grips being polished antelope prong and simply ivory in the one I mainly use. I don’t need to carry two guns night and day, but it has been shown to me that with two I have to use one less often. Two guns form a more ponderous threshold between me and the trouble which has been a steady feature of my life; but regardless of how formidable a threshold, it is in a doorway, and trouble enters in. So at the end of the day, with my collar button open for what air might be, my gun belt chafes at me as if to scold me for the choices that I’ve made, and carrying this load down three or four or five doors to the drink hall or saloon, I am visited by a hankering to step into any alley in the town and unclip all four buckles on the belt and set it slowly against the dark building there and walk away lighter and absolutely free.
The hankering goes on. I hanker to stay here and have the longest breakfast in the west, eating bacon and eggs and drinking coffee in the café until I knew the name of every citizen of this town and where they lived and where I might find a little piece of land with some low hills and trees and a small part of a river, a place I might raise some cattle for whatever purposes cattle are put, and build a house with a porch and paint that, the whole thing: porch house and rail. There’d be a rail. I hanker to sit there in the evenings in some chair I’d obtain and when I stand up I’d step down off the porch and put my hand into the air and feel tomorrow’s weather and know thereby what plans to make. After the cattle industry developed and thrived, I also would have fulfilled my hankering for a heavy gauge rail line to haul people and supplies (including some of those cattle) across the whole country. A thousand miles of steel track with the sidings and necessary maintenance facilities. I’d hanker to get married and I’d marry a pretty woman who was also strong and smarter than me which includes almost all women, and I’d hanker to marry a woman who was a steamboat captain and together we’d invest in her boat, a three decker paddle wheel called The Seven Seas, and on that ship we’d tour the great rivers top to bottom and offer travelers rare luxury such as golden brocade chairs with ottomans and reading lamps for the leather books of history on the walnut bookshelves. I’d hanker to meet the great politicians and soldiers and artists who could afford such travel and my wife and I would enchant them at the captain’s table and advise them on issues of state and how to apportion the resources of the country and where the borders of the states might best be placed. In all we’d have nine such steamships and employ the thousand men and women necessary to their continued service, jobs with benefits and the chance to do some good in the larger world. My hankering would include of course children, probably eight children, a bona fide legacy, who would grow up learning to spell correctly and how to settle disputes with reason and goodwill, and each of whom would learn a trade or an art and find room to practice it. I’d hanker for piano, probably a couple of pianos, and my children would play the pianos.
The sound of a piano in the twilight when you don’t know the location of the piano is a plaintive sound indeed, regardless if it is a rollicking tune, as they are called, or one of the great dead composer’s sonatas, and some nights as I walk back in the new dark toward the saloon, as they are called in stories, the piano wants to pull at me until I do peel off these old guns. Too many nights, the pearl handled pistol is still warm from work and it can be a biting heat reminiscent of the harm accomplished. It is a world of harm and I am a citizen thereof. But I’m a professional, if anything, and I can withstand an onslaught of heat and of the hurtful musical notes and all of the hankering they engender, and I understand with a clarity as solid as the weight of my gun belt, that I’m going to have a couple three rocky drinks and feel them burn a warm place in my breast for a minute which will have to serve as the only good thing in the life I have chosen.
Carlson’s short stories originally appeared in The New Yorker, Harper’s Magazine, Esquire, and GQ. In addition to his fiction, Carlson’s has also written for The New York Times Book Review and the Los Angeles Times Book Review. Carlson currently teaches at the University of California, Irvine.