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Title: Or Else

Date of first publication: 1953

Author: Henry Kuttner (1914-1958)

Date first posted: May 25, 2021

Date last updated: May 25, 2021

Faded Page eBook #20210549

This eBook was produced by: Alex White & the online Distributed Proofreaders Canada team at https://www.pgdpcanada.net

This file was produced from images generously made available by Internet Archive/American Libraries.






First published Amazing Stories, August-September 1953.

The reformers’ main trouble is a blind spot when it comes to simple pragmatism. They know how to save the world, to save mankind from destruction, to save ten dollars a week against a rainy day. What they lack is actual experience. No man can expect to know how hard it is to save money when he’s never had to fight like the devil to get his hands on a dime.


That’s why Miguel wasn’t impressed by all the fine talk this bigshot gringo was handing out. Anybody can swear off water when he’s not dry as an old bone. Sort of “He laughs at scars who never felt a wound.” But Miguel was no idiot. He knew you can’t argue with a man who intends to kill you, if necessary, to save your life!

Miguel and Fernandez were shooting inaccurately at each other across the valley when the flying saucer landed. They wasted a few bullets on the strange airship. The pilot appeared and began to walk across the valley and up the slope toward Miguel, who lay in the uncertain shade of a cholla swearing and working the bolt of his rifle as rapidly as he could. His aim, never good, grew worse as the stranger approached. Finally, at the last minute, Miguel dropped his rifle, seized the machete beside him, and sprang to his feet.

“Die, then,” he said, and swung the blade. The steel blazed in the hot Mexican sun. The machete rebounded elastically from the stranger’s neck and flew high in the air, while Miguel’s arm tingled as though from an electric shock. A bullet came from across the valley, making the kind of sound a wasp’s sting might make if you were hearing it instead of feeling it. Miguel dropped and rolled into the shelter of a large rock. Another bullet shrieked thinly, and a brief blue flash sparkled on the stranger’s left shoulder.

Estoy perdido,” Miguel said, giving himself up for lost. Flat on his stomach, he lifted his head and snarled at his enemy.

The stranger, however, made no inimical moves. Moreover, he seemed to be unarmed. Miguel’s sharp eyes searched him. The man was unusually dressed. He wore a cap made of short, shiny blue feathers. Under it his face was hard, ascetic and intolerant. He was very thin and nearly seven feet tall. But he did seem to be unarmed. That gave Miguel courage. He wondered where his machete had fallen. He did not see it, but his rifle was only a few feet away.

The stranger came up and stood above Miguel.

“Stand up,” he said. “Let us talk.”

He spoke excellent Spanish, except that his voice seemed to be coming from inside Miguel’s head.

“I will not stand up,” Miguel said. “If I stand up, Fernandez will shoot me. He is a very bad shot, but I would be a fool to take such a chance. Besides, this is very unfair. How much is Fernandez paying you?”

The stranger looked austerely at Miguel. “Do you know where I came from?” he asked.

“I don’t care a centavo where you came from,” Miguel said, wiping sweat from his forehead. He glanced toward a nearby rock where he had cached a goatskin of wine. “From los estados unidos, no doubt, you and your machine of flight. The Mexican government will hear of this.”

“Does the Mexican government approve of murder?”

“This is a private matter,” Miguel said. “A matter of water rights, which are very important. Besides, it is self-defense. That cabron across the valley is trying to kill me. And you are his hired assassin. God will punish you both.” A new thought came to him. “How much will you take to kill Fernandez?” he inquired. “I will give you three pesos and a fine kid.”

“There will be no more fighting at all,” the stranger said. “Do you hear that?”

“Then go and tell Fernandez,” Miguel said. “Inform him that the water rights are mine. I will gladly allow him to go in peace.” His neck ached from staring up at the tall man. He moved a little, and a bullet shrieked through the still, hot air and dug with a vicious splash into a nearby cactus.

The stranger smoothed the blue feathers on his head. “First I will finish talking with you. Listen to me, Miguel.”

“How do you know my name?” Miguel demanded, rolling over and sitting up cautiously behind the rock. “It is as I thought. Fernandez has hired you to assassinate me.”

“I know your name because I can read your mind a little. Not much, because it is so cloudy.”

“Your mother was a dog,” Miguel said.

The stranger’s nostrils pinched together slightly, but he ignored the remark. “I come from another world,” he said. “My name is—” In Miguel’s mind it sounded like Quetzalcoatl.

“Quetzalcoatl?” Miguel repeated, with fine irony. “Oh, I have no doubt of that. And mine is Saint Peter, who has the keys to Heaven.”

Quetzalcoatl’s thin, pale face flushed slightly, but his voice was determinedly calm. “Listen, Miguel. Look at my lips. They are not moving. I am speaking inside your head, by telepathy, and you translate my thoughts into words that have meaning to you. Evidently my name is too difficult for you. Your own mind has translated it as Quetzalcoatl. That is not my real name at all.”

De veras,” Miguel said. “It is not your name at all, and you do not come from another world. I would not believe a norteamericano if he swore on the bones of ten thousand highly-placed saints.”

Quetzalcoatl’s long, austere face flushed again.

“I am here to give orders,” he said. “Not to bandy words with—look here, Miguel. Why do you suppose you couldn’t kill me with your machete? Why can’t bullets touch me?”

“Why does your machine of flight fly?” Miguel riposted. He took out a sack of tobacco and began to roll a cigarette. He squinted around the rock. “Fernandez is probably trying to creep up on me. I had better get my rifle.”

“Leave it alone,” Quetzalcoatl said. “Fernandez will not harm you.”

Miguel laughed harshly.

“And you must not harm him,” Quetzalcoatl added firmly.

“I will, then, turn the other cheek,” Miguel said, “so that he can shoot me through the side of my head. I will believe Fernandez wishes peace, Señor Quetzalcoatl, when I see him walking across the valley with his hands over his head. Even then I will not let him come close, because of the knife he wears down his back.”

Quetzalcoatl smoothed his blue steel feathers again. His bony face was frowning. “You must stop fighting forever, both of you,” he said. “My race polices the universe and our responsibility is to bring peace to every planet we visit.”

“It is as I thought,” Miguel said with satisfaction. “You come from los estados unidos. Why do you not bring peace to your own country? I have seen los señores Humphrey Bogart and Edward Robinson in las películas. Why, all over Nueva York gangsters shoot at each other from one skyscraper to another. And what do you do about it? You dance all over the place with la señora Betty Grable. Ah yes, I understand very well. First you will bring peace, and then you will take our oil and our precious minerals.”

Quetzalcoatl kicked angrily at a pebble beside his shiny steel toe. “I must make you understand,” he said. He looked at the unlighted cigarette dangling from Miguel’s lips. Suddenly he raised his hand and a white-hot ray shot from a ring on his finger and kindled the end of the cigarette. Miguel jerked away, startled. Then he inhaled the smoke and nodded. The white-hot ray disappeared.

Muchas gracias, señor,” Miguel said.

Quetzalcoatl’s colorless lips pressed together thinly. “Miguel,” he said, “could a norteamericano do that?”

Quién sabe?

“No one living on your planet could do that, and you know it.”

Miguel shrugged.

“Do you see that cactus over there?” Quetzalcoatl demanded. “I could destroy it in two seconds.”

“I have no doubt of it, señor.”

“I could, for that matter, destroy this whole planet.”

“Yes, I have heard of the atomic bombs,” Miguel said politely. “Why, then, do you trouble to interfere with a quite private little argument between Fernandez and me, over a small water-hole of no importance to anybody but—”

A bullet sang past.

Quetzalcoatl rubbed the ring on his finger with an angry gesture.

“Because the world is going to stop fighting,” he said ominously. “If it doesn’t, we will destroy it. There is no reason at all why men should not live together in peace and brotherhood.”

“There is one reason, señor.”

“What is that?”

“Fernandez,” Miguel said.

“I will destroy you both if you do not stop fighting.”

El señor is a great peacemaker,” Miguel said courteously. “I will gladly stop fighting if you will tell me how to avoid being killed when I do.”

“Fernandez will stop fighting too.”

Miguel removed his somewhat battered sombrero, reached for a stick and carefully raised the hat above the rock. There was a nasty crack. The hat jumped away and Miguel caught it as it fell.

“Very well,” he said. “Since you insist, señor, I will stop fighting. But I will not come out from behind this rock. I am perfectly willing to stop fighting. But it seems to me that you demand I do something which you do not tell me how to do. You could as well require that I fly through the air like your machine of flight.”

Quetzalcoatl frowned more deeply. Finally he said, “Miguel, tell me how this fight started.”

“Fernandez wishes to kill me and enslave my family.”

“Why should he want to do that?”

“Because he is evil,” Miguel said.

“How do you know he is evil?”

“Because,” Miguel pointed out logically, “he wishes to kill me and enslave my family.”

There was a pause. A road-runner darted past and paused to peck at the gleaming barrel of Miguel’s rifle. Miguel sighed.

“There is a skin of good wine not twenty feet away—” he began, but Quetzalcoatl interrupted him.

“What was it you said about the water rights?”

“Oh, that,” Miguel said. “This is a poor country, señor. Water is precious here. We have had a dry year and there is no longer water enough for two families. The water hole is mine. Fernandez wishes to kill me and enslave—”

“Are there no courts of law in your country?”

“For such as us?” Miguel demanded, and smiled politely.

“Has Fernandez a family too?” Quetzalcoatl asked.

“Yes, the poors,” Miguel said. “He beats them when they do not work until they drop.”

“Do you beat your family?”

“Only when they need it,” Miguel said, surprised. “My wife is very fat and lazy. And my oldest, Chico, talks back. It is my duty to beat them when they need it, for their own good. It is also my duty to protect our water rights, since the evil Fernandez is determined to kill me and—”

Quetzalcoatl said impatiently, “This is a waste of time. Let me consider.” He rubbed the ring on his finger again. He looked around. The road-runner had found a more appetizing morsel than the rifle. He was now to be seen trotting away with the writhing tail of a lizard dangling from his beak.

Overhead, the sun was hot in a clear blue sky. The dry air smelled of mesquite. Below, in the valley, the flying saucer’s perfection of shape and texture looked incongruous and unreal.

“Wait here,” Quetzalcoatl said at last. “I will talk to Fernandez. When I call, come to my machine of flight. Fernandez and I will meet you there presently.”

“As you say, señor,” Miguel agreed. His eyes strayed.

“And do not touch your rifle,” Quetzalcoatl added, with great firmness.

“Why, no, señor,” Miguel said. He waited until the tall man had gone. Then he crawled cautiously across the dry ground until he had recaptured his rifle. After that, with a little searching, he found his machete. Only then did he turn to the skin of wine. He was very thirsty indeed. But he did not drink heavily. He put a full clip in the rifle, leaned against a rock and sipped a little from time to time from the wineskin as he waited.

In the meantime the stranger, ignoring fresh bullets that occasionally splashed blue from his steely person, approached Fernandez’ hiding place. The sound of shots stopped. A long time passed, and finally the tall form reappeared and waved to Miguel.

Ya voy, señor,” Miguel shouted agreeably. He put his rifle conveniently on the rock and rose very cautiously, ready to duck at the first hostile move. There was no such move.

Fernandez appeared beside the stranger. Immediately Miguel bent down, seized his rifle and lifted it for a snap shot.

Something thin and hissing burned across the valley. The rifle turned red-hot in Miguel’s grasp. He squealed and dropped it, and the next moment his mind went perfectly blank.

“I die with honor,” he thought, and then thought no more.

When he woke, he was standing under the shadow of the great flying saucer. Quetzalcoatl was lowering his hand from before Miguel’s face. Sunlight sparkled on the tall man’s ring. Miguel shook his head dizzily.

“I live?” he inquired.

But Quetzalcoatl paid no attention. He had turned to Fernandez who was standing beside him, and was making gestures before Fernandez’s mask-like face. A light flashed from Quetzalcoatl’s ring into Fernandez’s glassy eyes. Fernandez shook his head and muttered thickly. Miguel looked for his rifle or machete, but they were gone. He slipped his hand into his shirt, but his good little knife had vanished too.

He met Fernandez’ eyes.

“We are both doomed, Don Fernandez,” he said. “This señor Quetzalcoatl will kill us both. In a way, I am sorry that you will go to hell and I to heaven, for we shall not meet again.”

“You are mistaken,” Fernandez replied, vainly searching for his own knife. “You will never see heaven. Nor is this tall norteamericano named Quetzalcoatl. For his own lying purposes he has assumed the name of Cortés.”

“You will tell lies to the devil himself,” Miguel said.

“Be quiet, both of you,” Quetzalcoatl (or Cortés) said sharply. “You have seen a little of my power. Now listen to me. My race has assumed the high duty of seeing that the entire solar system lives in peace. We are a very advanced race, with power such as you do not yet dream of. We have solved problems which your people have no answer for, and it is now our duty to apply our power for the good of all. If you wish to keep on living, you will stop fighting immediately and forever, and from now on live in peace and brotherhood. Do you understand me?”

“That is all I have ever wished,” Fernandez said, shocked. “But this offspring of a goat wishes to kill me.”

“There will be no more killing,” Quetzalcoatl said. “You will live in brotherhood, or die.”

Miguel and Fernandez looked at each other—at Quetzalcoatl.

“The señor is a great peacemaker,” Miguel murmured. “I have said it before. The way you mention is surely the best way of all to insure peace. But to us it is not so simple. To live in peace is good. Very well, señor. Tell us how.”

“Simply stop fighting.”

“Now that is easy to say,” Fernandez pointed out. “But life here in Sonora is not a simple business. Perhaps it is where you come from—”

“Naturally,” Miguel put in.

“—but it is not simple with us. Perhaps in your country, señor, the snake does not eat the rat and the bird eat the snake. Perhaps in your country there is food and water for all, and a man need not fight to keep his family alive. Here it is not so simple.”

Miguel nodded. “We shall certainly all be brothers some day,” he agreed.

“You must not use force to solve your problems,” Quetzalcoatl said with great firmness. “Force is evil. You will make peace now.

“Or else you will destroy us,” Miguel said. He shrugged again and met Fernandez’ eyes. “Very well, señor. You have an argument I do not care to resist. Al fin, I agree. What must we do?”

Quetzalcoatl turned to Fernandez.

“I too, señor,” the latter said with a sigh. “You are no doubt right. Let us have peace.”

“You will take hands,” Quetzalcoatl said, his eyes gleaming. “You will swear brotherhood.”

Miguel held out his hand. Fernandez took it firmly and the two men grinned at each other.

“You see?” Quetzalcoatl said, giving them his austere smile. “It is not hard at all. Now you are friends. Stay friends.”

He turned away and walked toward the flying saucer. A door opened smoothly in the sleek hull. On the threshold Quetzalcoatl turned. He said, “I shall be watching.”

“Without a doubt,” Fernandez said. “Adiós, señor.

Vaya con Dios,” Miguel added.

The smooth surface of the hull closed after Quetzalcoatl. A moment later the flying saucer lifted smoothly and rose until it was a hundred feet above the ground. Then it shot off to the north like a sudden flash of lightning and was gone.

“As I thought,” Miguel said. “He was from los estados unidos.”

Fernandez shrugged. “There was a moment when I thought he might tell us something sensible,” he said. “No doubt he had great wisdom. Truly, life is not easy.”

“Oh, it is easy enough for him,” Miguel said. “But he does not live in Sonora. We, however, do. Fortunately, I and my family have a water hole to rely on. For those without one, life is hard.”

“It is a very poor water hole,” Fernandez said. “Such as it is, however, it is mine.” He was rolling a cigarette as he spoke. He handed it to Miguel and rolled another for himself. The two men smoked for a while in silence. Then, still silent, they parted.

Miguel went back to the wineskin on the hill. He took a long drink, grunted with pleasure, and looked around him. His knife, machete and rifle were carelessly flung down not far away. He recovered them and made sure he had a full clip.

Then he peered cautiously around the rock barricade. A bullet splashed on the stone near his face. He returned the shot.

After that, there was silence for awhile. Miguel sat back and took another drink. His eye was caught by a road-runner scuttling past, with the tail of a lizard dangling from his beak. It was probably the same road-runner as before, and perhaps the same lizard, slowly progressing toward digestion.

Miguel called softly, “Señor Bird! It is wrong to eat lizards.”

The road-runner cocked a beady eye at him and ran on.

Miguel raised and aimed his rifle. “Stop eating lizards, Señor Bird. Stop, or I must kill you.”

The road-runner ran on across the rifle-sights.

“Don’t you understand how to stop?” Miguel called gently. “Must I explain how?”

The road-runner paused. The tail of the lizard disappeared completely.

“Oh, very well,” Miguel said. “When I find out how a road-runner can stop eating lizards and still live, then I will tell you, amigo. But until then, go with God.”

He turned and aimed the rifle across the valley again.



[The end of Or Else by Henry Kuttner]