It is a full moon night. In the distance, there is a large mountain, with rocks and boulders. At the bottom, there is a wide stream. As it flows over rocks and pebbles, it creates a sound like falling rain. In the middle of this scene, there is a mud road. The daytime sun had scorched it. Thus, the road is strong and smooth. There is a wooden cart on it. It has four wheels. A white canvas covered the back.
A man is sitting on the driver’s bench and is holding the reins of a white horse. The man, Earl James, is in his late forties. He has a scraggly red beard and blue eyes. Earl is a bounty hunter in Texas. The year is 1873. He has captured several men needed by the law and collected the reward. During his career, he has shot dead several men who resisted arrest.
At the back, underneath the canvas, lies a man. He is Owen Smith, 33, a horse thief and a married father of two small children. Earl had tied a handkerchief around his mouth. He had also tied Owen’s hands and legs together with rope. The man was being taken to the Sheriff’s office in a nearby town because there was a reward for his capture.
For Earl, there was always the risk of being shot by an outlaw or an absconder. So far, Earl has won every fight. He shoots fast. His dad had taught him when he was 12. And he displayed a natural talent and speed for shooting. But he knew that as he grew older, his reflexes would slow down. Somebody could shoot him dead one day. Earl thought he could do this job for another couple of years before he quit for good.
Earl had remained a bachelor. So, there would be nobody to mourn his death. He knew that as well. ‘But I like to be free of all encumbrances,’ he thought, as he chewed on a piece of tobacco and travelled through the moonlit night. He was at peace with the environment and with his lot in life.
Abruptly, he heard the thudding sound of horse hoofs. Earl immediately stopped chewing, took out his rifle, and glanced around. On the right were two men on a horse with rifles pointing at him. Earl immediately understood they wanted to rescue Owen. ‘Could be his friends,’ he thought.
He remained calm and even as they shot at him, Earl aimed and hit one of them over his heart. The man let out a cry, clutched his chest as the rifle flew from his hand. The horse careened to a halt as the man fell to the ground with a thud.
Earl watched him fall, as if in slow motion. Then he realised there was something wrong with his colleague. The man had fallen off the horse and lay on his back. Earl stared hard at the other man. He was sure he had not hit the other man. So, what had happened? Has the man become ill? Earl wondered whether he should continue on the journey or find out what had happened. He felt he had to do so; in case the second man came riding at him later. So, he stepped down from the cart.
As he edged closer, he could see the man lying lifeless on his back, his eyes closed, and his rifle next to him. The other cowboy had also fallen nearby. Both horses had bolted off into the distance. Keeping his eyes peeled, Earl approached, his rifle held in front of him. He was not sure everything was alright.
When he was three feet away, the other cowboy grabbed his rifle and fired. It happened so quickly that Earl had no time to take evasive action. The bullet struck him between his eyes. He felt an explosion within himself as he tumbled backward onto the ground. From the vertical to the supine position. The sound echoed in the mountains. A coyote let out a long howl.
The next thing Earl realized was he was rising in the air. When he looked back, he could see his dead body lying on the ground. There was a trickle of blood from the middle of his forehead. It flowed down his nose and over his mouth and fell drip by drip onto his brown shirt. He saw the other cowboy stare at him for a while. Then, convinced Earl was dead, he bent down and checked his pockets, grabbed a few dollar bills and stood up.
He pressed the money into his shirt pocket. Then he strode to the cart, pulled the canvas to one side, and used a knife to cut through the ropes. Owen stepped off the cart. He stretched his hands and legs. He rubbed his wrists together to get the blood flowing.
Thereafter, he hugged the other man and said, “Thank you, bro.” They untied the horse from the cart, and both got on the animal and trotted off into the distance. The cart lay motionless in the moonlight.
Earl thought, ‘Who would have thought ten minutes ago that such a scenario was about to take place? And I would be dead in the stillness of the night.’
He rose higher and higher towards the clouds.
In heaven, there was a flurry of activity. A group of men gathered before God and presented him with a petition. One of them said, “Earl shot each one of us. We were ready to surrender, but he took the easy way out. He is a murderer. You should bar him from heaven.”
God was in a dilemma. In cowboy society, it was legal, as a bounty hunter, to kill an absconder. So, Earl never thought he had sinned. This was the case with soldiers in the Civil War who killed each other. They did not regard it as murder. So, what to do now? An individual killing another is a grave sin, but what about a bounty hunter?
God remained quiet.
In hell, there was chaos. The many people Earl had killed were praying he would come to hell. They were ready to tear him to pieces. A few held knives. One man had an axe. He said, “I want to split his soul into two.”
The devil remained calm. He stroked his chin and asked a sidekick to poke burning hot rocks with a poker so that the heat would increase. These people were so easy to manipulate. ‘Only politicians on earth had inherited some of my genes,’ he thought. ‘The rest are fools’.
“Earl is welcome,” he told the victims. “You are free to do anything. It all depends on what God does. If he rejects Earl, it will be a happy day in Hell.”
The blood-red wet skin of the devil glowed in the heat of the ever-rising flames. He stroked his horns as he sat on a throne. Its back was covered with writhing snakes — cobras, kraits, vipers, and one anaconda. They slid their forked tongues in and out. There was the stench of blood all over.
The devil reached out for a glass of red liquid. As the men clamoured to kill Earl, the Devil raised his glass and said, “Vintage stuff! This is the blood that belonged to some of our biggest heroes — Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Mao Zedong, Genghis Khan and Benito Mussolini. I had their blood preserved for centuries.”
He took a sip and smacked his lips together. “Top class,” the devil said.
Earl picked up the signals, both from heaven and hell. He realised he was in a Catch-22 situation. He said, “God, please save me!”
God pondered over Earl’s request. He had always faced this dilemma. People knocked at the gates of Heaven, seeking entry, even though they had killed a great many people. They pleaded their innocence. In the end, he decided if the society they lived in had a legal basis for the killings, he would accept them in heaven.
God knew there were too many frayed tempers in Heaven, and he knew what fate awaited Earl in hell. He knew he had to devise a compromise.
So, he sent the bounty hunter to purgatory, and said, “Earl, you only have to spend 500 years there. After that, I am sure tempers would have cooled down and you can come to Heaven.”
Earl’s soul heaved in relief. He pressed his hand over where his heart would have been, and said, “Thank you, God!”