The acid western is a sub-genre of the plain-old-western with a few important differences. While the regular and usually the “spaghetti” western views the journey to the west as self-actualization and the triumph of man over untamed wild and uncivilized people, the acid western views this journey as one towards death and destruction. While the protagonists of many regular westerns are white males, in the acid western the while male is sometimes the villain and the Native American is sometimes the hero. Acid westerns are notoriously filled with counter-culture ideals and hallucinatory landscapes, and are generally anti-capitalist and anti-expansionist. Film critic Jonothan Rosenbaum describes the acid western as “formulating a chilling, savage frontier poetry to justify its hallucinated agenda.” The genre goes back to the ’60s and ’70s, but the term “acid western” was coined after the making of Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man. One of the odder, more beautiful scenes of this film is here:
This is the beginning of a story that presents my take on the genre.
The Devils that Have Come to Stay
December 21, 1848
With Joanna away, sleep does not come easily. I lay awake in bed, thinking over days, words, but nothing becomes clear. I have never seen much use in words. I hear men tell stories, lay claims, make plans, and the next day see those men right where they were the day before, all their words forgotten, having made nothing. There is something to this world that makes words fail. The reason I write these words now is that something is happening. I cannot comprehend it, and I dare not trouble Joanna with it. I am not sure what this something is, but it seems to have started in words. Whispers. Rumors. Threats. I can’t say I didn’t hear the word “ruined.” I heard the word “rush” and felt the terrifying loosening that comes with it. One day, when I was crossing the town square, I heard a voice in a language that had never before touched my ears. Not white and not the mutterings of Indians. Something full of clucks like a chicken and sounds that rose above the way people talk. When I looked, I saw no face to match it, just the faces I see every day. The change began in these words, and now it has gone further. Now it seems the only way to understand it is by putting my own words around it.
It was two days ago that the Indian walked in and sat down in front of me. I can say it was something I never expected, not here, and from the way the men put down their cards and glasses, they must not have expected it either. He looked like an Indian does, only different. His hair was full of knots and tangles as thick as a rope. His dark skin was red with some sort of bumps, some of them open and oozing at the center. The largest open lesion was in the middle of his forehead, between his eyebrows. I kept looking into it instead of his eyes, which were swollen around the edges with the bumps. I suppose it was not so strange a place to rest my eyes, with how bad the rest of his face looked, but the strange thing was that I began to feel as if the wound was staring back.
— Barkeeper don’t take feathers and beads, said George, who was closest to the Indian.
The Indian turned long enough to look at George. There was something defiant about him, sick and unhappy as he looked. It wasn’t his stature. He was short, like the local Indians are, about the size of an older child. It was the way he held himself. Aloof. A bitter sort of remove that you’d have to have to walk into a place where the men would as soon as kill you as say hello. George didn’t look away, but he didn’t move any closer to the Indian. I thought that by now George would regularly have drawn his gun, but I suppose he didn’t want to drag a dead, diseased Indian out of the saloon any more than I did.
— Quiet, George, I said.
I took down a cracked glass and poured the Indian some whisky.
The Indian took his time working on the drink. His hand shook, and he didn’t say anything. The whole saloon was silent for a long moment. Then someone, maybe George, coughed.
— You might be getting sick in the lights, George, said a man we call Smithy.
With the quiet in the bar broken a bit, I knew there wasn’t going to be any trouble. I moved down the bar and watched John and Daniel play cards. Every now and again I would shift my eyes to the place the Indian sat. He remained quiet, somber, staring down at his drink as if it held those secrets only Indians think they can see. Once, as I watched, a feather dislodged itself from the mess of his hair and seesawed back and forth in the air before falling to the bar.
I looked up some time later, and the seat was empty.
— Goddamn injun left a goddamn mess, George called.
I walked to where the Indian had sat with a piece of rag, expecting spilled whisky. Instead, I saw more than a dozen feathers scattered around the floor. In my mind, I tried to see the Indian, and it seemed he had not had that many feathers anywhere on his person. But I suppose I could have been wrong. I went to get the broom.
— Like a dead angel sat there, Daniel said, seeing the mess.
— You’re drunk. Shut your mouth.
That night, after all the men had gone home and the saloon was closed, quiet and dark, I broke up the stool the Indian sat on and burned it out back. I threw the feathers into the modest blaze, too, though I was tempted to keep one.
December 27, 1848
After the incident of the Indian, the days passed without event, and the saloon once again became my sanctuary. When I consider the disagreements, the drunken men, and the long hours, the word “sanctuary” seems a strange choice, and yet I let it stand. The saloon is a world where everything has an order, a world unlike the one outside its doors. The cracked glasses for strangers and for men who always break glasses will forever be on the left half of the shelf behind the bar. The good glasses will always be on the right and go to the less rowdy regulars. The bottles will always be in order from least to most expensive, except for when it is so busy I lose track of order. John and Daniel will play cards night after night at the table by the door, mostly quietly, sometimes cursing one another. George will unerringly show up at 4 o’clock and drink for hours before speaking a word. Smithy will drink until he sings old songs into his whisky glass. These are things I can count upon.
The first night after the Indian came, the men were restless. They always turn to see who is coming in every time the door opens, but that night they did so with quick jerks of their necks like spastics. As they turned their heads back to their primary positions, some of them had a look of guilt in their eyes.
By the second night, the men began to talk of the incident with bravado they had not had two night before.
–Damn injun, George said. I’d like to see him again. Whatever’s sick won’t be the thing that kills him if I do.
George then scratched his long beard and moved on to other subjects.
The men had all but forgotten the Indian when the Stranger showed up. Strangers come and go infrequently at the saloon, but when they do they stop by while doing a stint at the mills, they come through town traveling north and spread word of the latest place the ore has been found. I listen to their words with a poker face and expect never to see or hear from them again. But this stranger was different. He burst through the door of the bar, making some of the men jump. Perhaps they had not forgotten the Indian as well as they appeared to have.
His gun was drawn, glinting dull steel in the dim of the saloon. The way he walked, a wobble in his legs at the knee joints, told me he had been drinking for some time before he stepped through my door. His lips drew back in a snarl, and from behind the bar I saw the yellow shimmer of a mouth full of gold teeth.
–You best state your purpose with that gun, George said, standing and reaching for his own.
–I don’t mean any man any harm. I’m looking for an injun. Did any of you men see an injun come through here a few days back? Looking all sick and wrong?
The men looked at him as they had at the Indian himself.
–What’s that information worth to you? George asked as I pretended to polish a glass. I find it is best to remain calm even when the men cannot.
–Quite a sight, if I find him, the Stranger said. I’m following him from the north. Leaves a trail of feathers everywhere he goes. That’s how I know he’s been this way. Injun stole a pile of gold from me. Any man who helps me find him stands to gain.
George laughed behind his beard.
–I ain’t never given out information on a maybe, he said.
The Stranger’s lips got tight, covering his gold teeth. He tipped his hat back on his head and turned to look at the other men. His face was red and sweaty, as if the drinking he had done earlier had been hard work.
–I suppose all the rest of you want to see some savage injun run off with a decent man’s gold as well?
No one spoke, just looked at him above their glasses and cards. The Stranger began to wave his gun towards the men. George had fully drawn his gun by this point.
–No one here has any love for injuns, any more than they do for men waving guns in their faces, he said. I think you best leave before one of these guns gets used.
Slowly, one by one, the men at the bar put down their cards and drinks and began drawing their guns. I have a gun of my own under the shelf that holds the bottles of whisky, a Colt Paterson percussion revolver with a mother of pearl handle. I never wanted that gun, but my wife insisted I keep it with me behind the bar. At times it glimmers at me as if with some terrible certainty, calling for me to pick it up. But I do not. And I did not then. I continued to polish that glass I held until it shone like the Stranger’s teeth.
The Stranger saw he was outnumbered. He stumbled backwards towards the door. He lowered his gun as if it weighed too much for him to hold any longer. Taking it in his palm, he offered his thin wrists to the ceiling of the saloon.
–They’ve taken everything! he shouted. Tendons stood out in his neck as he cast his eyes and chin upwards. What can a man have that they don’t take away? How can a man be expected to lose everything to these goddamn monsters and just take and take it?
His chest heaving with the heat of his declaration, he kicked the door behind him open and stepped away from the steady line of steel guns winking at him in the dim of the saloon. The door closed behind him. When a few moments had passed, the men slowly put their guns back in their belts.