Robert sheckley — the never-ending western movie

The Never-Ending Western Movie
Robert Sheckley

The name is Washburn: just plain Washburn to my friends, Mister Washburn to enemies and strangers. Saying that I've said everything, because you've seen me a thousand times, on the big screen in your neighborhood theater or on the little pay-tv screen in your living room, riding through Cholla cactus and short grass, my famous derby pulled down over my eyes, my famous Colt 44 with the 7 1/2-inch barrel strapped down to my right leg. But just now I'm riding in a big air-conditioned Cadillac, sitting between my agent-manager Gordon Simms, and my wife, Consuela. We've turned off State Highway 101 and we're bouncing along a rutted dirt road which will end presently at the Wells Fargo Station that marks one of the entrances to The Set. Simms is talking rapidly and rubbing the back of my neck like I was a fighter about to enter the ring, which is more or less the situation. Consuela is quiet. Her English isn't too good yet. She's the prettiest little thing imaginable, my wife of less than two months, a former Miss Chile, a former actress in various Gaucho dramas filmed in Buenos Aires and Montevideo. This entire scene is supposed to be off-camera. It's the part they never show you: the return of the famous gunfighter, all the way from Bel Air in the jolly jittery year of 2031 to the Old West of the mid-1900's.
Simms is jabbering away about some investment he wants me to come in on, some new seabed mining operation, another of Simms's get-richer-quick schemes, because Simms is already a wealthy man, as who wouldn't be with a thirty-percent bit on my earnings throughout my ten biggest years as a star? Simms is my friend, too, but I can't think about investments now because we're coming to The Set.
Consuela, sitting on my right, shivers as the famous weatherbeaten old station comes into view. She's never really understood The Never-Ending Western Movie. In South America they still make their movies in the old-fashioned way, everything staged, everything faked, and the guns fire only blanks. She can't understand why America's famous Movie has to be done for real when you could contrive all the effects and nobody would get killed. I've tried to explain it to her, but it sounds ridiculous in Spanish.
It's different for me this time, of course: I'm coming out of retirement to make a cameo appearance. I'm on a no-kill contract — famous gunman to do a comedy bit with Old Jeff Mangles and Natchez Parker. There's no script, of course; there never is in The Movie. We'll improvise around any situation that comes up — we, the commedia dell'arte players of the Old West. Consuela doesn't understand any of this. She's heard about contracts to kill, but a no-kill contract is something new in her experience.
And now we've arrived. The car stops in front of a low, unpainted pinewood building. Everything on this side of it is 21st-century America in all its recycled and reproduced gory. On the other side is the million-acre expanse of prairie, mountains and desert, with its thousands of concealed cameras and microphones, that is The Set for The Never-Ending Movie.
I'm in costume already — blue jeans, blue-and-white checked shirt, boots, derby, rawhide jacket, and 3. 2 pounds of revolver. A horse is waiting for me at the hitching post of the other side of the station, with all my gear tied aboard in a neat blanket roll. An assistant director checks me over and finds me in order: no wristwatch or other anachronisms for the cameras to find. “All right, Mr.