The Cowboy walked through the automatic sliding doors of theArizona State University's medical center Emergency Room. His spurs jangled on his boots, the tassels on his jacket swayed with each bow-legged step. He ambled past the protesting admissions nurse and walked into the ward, straight up to the nurses' station. He leaned on the desk and took his thin, cheaply rolled cigar out of his mouth, then took his hat off and gave a slight bow to the head nurse.
"Howdy," he said. "Name's Whit Miller. I'm looking for my pa."
The nurse, whose nametag read "Alma," furrowed her brow and gave the cowboy a stare.
"You're going to have to put out that cigarette, sir, this is a hospital," she ordered.
"Got an ashtray?" asked the cowboy. The nurse shook her head.
"Most people know not to smoke in a hospital."
The cowboy took the cigarette out of his mouth, then licked two fingers and pinched out the smoking red end. He looked around to find a trash can, but not immediately finding one he quietly tucked the cigarette into the breast pocket of his flannel shirt.
"Now, who were you looking for?" asked the nurse.
"Aldous Miller," answered the cowboy. "My father."
The nurse looked in the computer and found the name. "I'm sorry, sir," she said with a look that was sympathetic while also seeming to say that he should know this already. "Your father has died."
"I know he's dead," said The Cowboy. "I want to see the body. Then I want to find the man responsible." The nurse sighed, then called an attendant to escort The Cowboy to the mortuary.
The room was cold, white and sterile. A morgue attendant pulled The Cowboy's father out of what looked like a long metal file cabinet drawer. The Cowboy stared down at his father, a man who had once been a towering and imposing figure, now laid out flat and thin, his body pale, his face sallow near to the point of translucency. The Cowboy stayed there for twenty minutes straight, staring down at the body while the morgue attendant ate a chicken Caesar salad while watching Montel Williams. He only looked up when he heard a voice call out "Mr. Miller?"
The doctor was tall and thin. His thin black hair was gelled and combed down in a severe and unflattering part. He had wire-framed glasses the he fidgeted with when he was nervous, which, at this particular moment, he was. He liked to leave these kinds of conversations to interns or chaplains or someone, anyone other than him. He appeared to be standing somewhat on the balls of his feet and his long, white hands held a file.
"Mr. Miller?" he asked again. The Cowboy looked up and nodded. "I was told you wanted to see me?"
"You the doctor who worked on my pa?" asked The Cowboy.
"Yes, I operated on Mr. Miller here," said the doctor, pushing the bridge of his glasses up his nose and adjusting the frame slightly. "If you have any questions, I'd be happy to answer them."
"How'd he die?" asked The Cowboy.
"Nothing too painful, if that's what you're concerned about," said the doctor. "A quick, simple coronary, more likely than not it killed him quietly in his sleep."
"So you didn't kill him?" The Cowboy narrowed his eyes as though he was sizing up a gun fighter awaiting a draw at twenty paces. The doctor coughed, then fidgeted with his glasses so thoroughly that he ended up simply taking them off and massaging his sinuses.
"No! Heavens no," said the doctor. "Your father was dead when he got here, basically. I did a couple tests then pronounced him late last night, that's all."
"So the people who brought him in killed him?" asked The Cowboy.
"No! Jesus!" said the doctor. "Nobody killed him. He was an old man, he lived a life of hard exertion, his heart just gave out, it's nobody's fault! Nobody killed him!"
The Cowboy crossed his arms and gave the doctor an ice cold stare. "Listen here, doc," The Cowboy said out of a snarl on the side of his mouth. "The man who gave me life, who raised me, is dead. I don't let those close to me pass without getting vengeance. One way or another someone's going to pay for this, now you tell me who it's got to be."
"I don't understand," said the doctor.
"My wife was attacked by wolves in the harsh winter of '73. I went out with a bowie knife and gutted every wolf in the surrounding ten miles until I found the pack that ate my Martha, then I slaughtered them all. When my partner Enid drowned in the Sasquahana River I traced that river all the way back to its source then dynamited the whole area and ran the river dry."
"That's psychotic," said the doctor.
"Nope," said The Cowboy. "That's prairie justice."
"Noooo, that's pretty psychotic," said the doctor.
"You just tell me what it was that killed my pa," demanded the cowboy.
The doctor shrugged his shoulders. "It was his heart, man. His heart gave out. No one's fault, it was just his time to go."
"Who decides when it was his time?" asked The Cowboy. "I didn't decide. I certainly don't think he did."
"I don't know," said the doctor, rubbing his sinuses again. "Just chalk it up to an act of God."
"God, eh?" said The Cowboy. He hitched up his belt. "God it is, then," and off he marched.
After three weeks of intense theological study and discussions with his local priests, ministers and rabbis, The Cowboy came to the conclusion that there was only one way to meet God. He sat on his horse high atop Raton Mesa. He took in the landscape around him, casting his eyes once more over the wide prairie he had called home his entire life.
"Best get on with it, then," he said. He spurred the horse into a full run. The horse galloped hard, closing the short distance to the mesa's edge quickly. As they reached the edge The Cowboy spurred the horse into a jump. Cowboy and horse flew over the edge of the mesa and sailed towards the earth.
There was no pain. The Cowboy could not even remember hitting the ground. He remembered it rushing up towards him, seeing it in such vivid detail that he remembered a small lizard darting away from the widening shadow man and horse were making, then, suddenly here he was, standing outside a large pearly gate that went off far into the horizon. The ground was white and fluffy, like the big clouds that hung in the sky on humid nights back on earth. Here he was, at the entrance to Heaven.
His horse was beside him, looking fine. The Cowboy led the horse up to the gate, where a man stood in a long white robe, his head enveloped in a golden glow.
"Hello," said the man as The Cowboy approached. "I'm St. Peter. Welcome to Heaven! I'm going to need your name and particular religious affiliation."
"Unaffiliated," said the man. "I'm just here to find the man who killed my pa."
"And who was your 'pa,' may I ask?" said St. Peter.
"Aldous Miller," said The Cowboy.
"Oooh. You're Aldous' boy?" said St. Peter, flipping through a large file. "He said there might be some trouble with you."
"No trouble with me," said The Cowboy. "I just need to speak with God."
"I imagine he's going to want to talk to you, too. Hold on just one second." St. Peter picked up a pearly white telephone from behind his pearly white podium and dialed.
"Hello?" he said into the phone. "Hello, it's Pete. Yep, down at the gate… Same old same old, how about you?... Of course I watched it, you know how long I've been waiting for a new Lost! Where do they come up with these stories, I know! That's why they make the big bucks. Listen, I've got Aldous Miller's son here at the gate… Oh I know, don't get me started. If you could get God down here, it shouldn't be long. Thanks, Margie, you're a doll."
St. Peter hung up the phone.
"You watch Lost?" St. Peter asked The Cowboy.
"No," said The Cowboy.
"Oh, you really should!" said the saint. "It gets a little dry around seasons 2 and 3, but if you stick with it's really good."
A silence blossomed and withered between them in the span of a moment. "You really watch tv here?" The Cowboy asked to break the silence. "Aren't you supposed to, you know… know everything? Seems like that would make tv boring."
"Oh, we don't know everything, that's just God."
"That makes sense, I guess," said The Cowboy. He patted his horse, then adjusted his belt and holster. It occurred to him that it was nice they'd let him come up with the sidearm, as he'd have had to improvise if they hadn't, and he hated improvising. The Cowboy coughed quietly into his hand.
"Umm, how long should it be until…" The Cowboy said.
"Not very long," said St. Peter. "God's a pretty busy deity, but also omniscient and omnipresent, so you know…" There was a loud popping noise and a burst of smoke and then suddenly a man in a toga that appeared to be changing colors.
"God here," said God. "What's the news?"
The Cowboy drew his pistol and fired before the burst of smoke had cleared. St. Peter let out a high-pitched shriek as God's head exploded. The body simply stood for a moment, the stump where the head used to be was smoking and pulpy. The stump bulged and bubbled for a second, then a second head grew out from the stump. The head shook itself off.
"Uuuh, God here? Immortal? You think I don't have powers of regeneration? Don't even try that shit."
The Cowboy holstered his weapon.
"You feel better now?" God asked. "You got the anger out? You gonna chill?" The cowboy said nothing. "Nice horse."
"So, you want to see your dad?" asked God.
God took The Cowboy by the hand and suddenly they were standing right outside what looked like a room in an upscale hotel. "You all right?" asked God. "Sometimes people get funky when that happens for the first time."
"I'm all right," said The Cowboy.
God knocked on the door. There was a shuffling within the apartment and then the door slowly opened. Behind the door stood The Cowboy's father, looking just as he had the last time The Cowboy had seen him.
"Hello, son," said the old man.
"Hello, pa," said The Cowboy.
"Tried the whole vengeance thing, did you?" asked the old man. The Cowboy nodded. "I always thought that was a load of malarkey." The Cowboy cleared his throat.
"I know," he said, and pulled his hat down low over his eyes.
"Well, come on in," said the old man as he shuffled into the apartment. The old man sat in a Barcalounger and nodded The Cowboy towards the sofa. As The Cowboy sat down the old man turned on the television. "They got a system up here let's you watch anything that's ever been made!" the old man said. "You ever watched Lost?"
"They got Bonanza?" asked The Cowboy.
"Bonanza? Hell, you've seen every episode of that damn show twenty times! I'm talking about Lost!"
"I'll give it a shot," said The Cowboy. He kicked off his boots and put his feet up on the table. God smiled and closed the door behind him.
"You'll like Jack," said the old man. "He's a pistol."