A hot dry wind blew down off the low rolling hills rattling the drying cornstalks and moaning around the scattered out buildings of the Sherman Ranch. Except for the sound of the wind, all else was unnaturally quiet. No bird called, no dog barked. It was as if the whole world was holding it’s collective breath. Jess Harper shivered in spite of the heat and pulled up the collar of his worn work shirt. His right hand drifted unconsciously to his side arm. His dark blue eyes anxiously scanned the horizon. Beneath him his horse stirred nervously as if sharing his rider’s vague sense of foreboding.
In the ranch house, Daisy Cooper peered out the kitchen window with concern. She had sent Mike to gather eggs some time ago and normally he would have come bounding through the door by now. After a bit she saw him emerge from the hen house empty handed and looking bemused – coming from the barn, Slim Sherman soon joined him carrying an empty milk pail – both looked baffled and worried. “Honest Slim. I looked everywhere,” Mike was saying. “Them hens just ain’t layin’.”
“Hey, I believe you, Tiger,” Slim replied. “I didn’t make out any better with the milkin’.” “I’ve never known Sally to hold back, but she didn’t give me a drop. Why don’t you run in the house and break the bad news to Daisy. The morning stage should be here any minute.”
As he spoke, the aforementioned stage rounded the bend and came bowling down the drive. Ushering in it’s arrival was a deep distant thunder. Slim could see at once that something was very wrong. Mose was sitting up very straight in the box, practically standing, trying desperately to hold the horses in check. Despite their tiredness all four, drenched with sweat and foam were straining at their collars, their eyes rolling and showing white with fear. Mose pulled them up with some difficulty by the corral and Slim ran to their heads. Jess joined him a moment later and both had all they could do to hang on to the terrified team.
“What in tarnation is goin’ on, Mose?” Jess called.
“Damned if I know. Everything was fine and then we picked up this old feller walkin’ beside the road, headin’ towards here. They been actin’ like the wrath of God was upon ‘em ever since.”
After making sure Slim had the horses under control, Jess made his way to the stage door and opened it. Three passengers, a young married couple and a boy of about eighteen, came tumbling through, practically crawling over one another in their anxiousness to be out of and away from the stage. Their faces were pale. They appeared too frightened to even speak. Jess looked after them, puzzled and then peered back into the recesses of the stage. As he did so, he suddenly jumped backwards so quickly that he very nearly fell. Emerging through the door came a tall pallid emaciated figure of indeterminate age clad from head to boot in flapping rusty black old-fashioned garments. He paused for a moment before stepping out, looking out over the small group of people with dark eyes so deeply sunk into his skull like countenance that it was impossible to tell their color. He alighted with surprising grace and fixed his stare on Jess. After a long moment he smiled a ghastly smile displaying large even dark yellow teeth. A faint odor emanated from him – an odor of damp earth and the sweet nauseating smell of decay.
All of Jess’ finely honed instincts told him to get away from this creature – he could hardly think of him as human – as quickly as possible. Although his skin crawled and he could feel the bile rise in his throat, he swallowed hard and stood his ground. Returning the stranger’s stare, he finally spoke with a voice barely more than a low deep whisper, “I know you.”
The stranger’s smile widened further and he threw back his head and laughed heartily before replying, “that you do, boy, that you do.” And with that, he turned on his heel and strode purposely back up the drive and out of sight.
As he disappeared from view, Slim, Mose and the other passengers let out sighs of relief and began to chat somewhat nervously. The horses dropped their heads and the hens came out from under the bushes and began happily pecking about. Birds sang and the wind quieted. Everyone relaxed but Jess who continued to stare in the direction of the departing stranger. Seeing this, Slim came up behind him and clapped a friendly hand on the back of his neck, feeling his tenseness. “Mind tellin’ me what that was about Pard,” he asked quietly.
“Ain’t nothin’,” Jess muttered as he turned to help change the team. The subject was clearly closed.
“Well,” Daisy exclaimed at dinner. “I’m certainly glad you were finally able to get me some milk and eggs. I’ve never heard of cows drying up and chickens refusing to lay just like that.”
“Must have been the change in the weather,” Slim replied. “Everything’s back to normal now – well most everything that is,” he finished glancing meaningfully at Jess. At that, all eyes turned to the dark haired young man at the end of the table. All through dinner he had said scarcely a word and had just picked at his meal. Looking up, he mumbled something unintelligible and then without further word, hurried out the front door and sat on the porch watching the drive nervously.
After the dinner things were put away, Slim poured two cups of coffee and taking them out to the porch, pulled up a chair next to his partner and waited. Jess drank his coffee in silence and then turned to Slim and said softly, “thanks – don’t wait up for me. I need to do some thinking. I’ll be in before long.”
Taking the hint, Slim gathered the empty cups and before heading back in, reached down and gave Jess a gentle playful punch in the shoulder. “Whenever you’re ready to talk, I’ll be ready to listen.” Jess gave him a small grateful smile and went back to watching the road.
One by one the lights in the house went out until only the lamp on the dining table remained lit. The darkness gathered and the wind picked up. Jess suddenly became aware that he was no longer alone. Standing at the far end of the porch, his pale skin glowing unnaturally in the faint lamplight from the window, the stranger chuckled. Startled, Jess leapt to his feet, his gun drawn.
“Sit down boy,” the stranger ordered, “before you wake up the whole house.” Jess obeyed stiffly but kept his gun pointed.
“What do you want with us?” Jess demanded.
“How long has it been, boy? Eight years? Ten?” the stranger asked, ignoring the question. “Seems like just yesterday. You were so very young – scarcely more than a lad. Lying there in that field hospital barely clinging to life.” The stranger lit a long black cigarette and blew a thick plume of acrid smoke out his nose.
“You’d have been lying by the road at the entrance of the hospital except that a sergeant you had fought beside had you brought in and given his cot in the well intentioned but misguided belief that by doing so he would save your life. Little did that good man know that you could have stayed out there by that muddy lane in the cold and the rain for days and you would have still survived. And do you know why, my angry young friend?” The stranger laughed again as though recalling a favorite old joke. “You would have survived simply because it wasn’t yet your time. And the sergeant? Well that man didn’t have a chance – his ticker was scheduled to stop that very night and so it did albeit slightly – ever so slightly delayed.
Jess stared at him but said nothing.
“Now imagine my surprise and consternation, boy, when as I went to escort the good sergeant out of this life, I inadvertently took you. After all you were where he was supposed to be. Now I realized my error almost immediately but not, I’m afraid, before you took a good long look at my face and ill as you were, you knew right away who I was,” Leaning in closely until his nose was inches from Jess’ face, he hissed, “didn’t you boy?”
Jess blanched and closed his eyes briefly but still didn’t speak.
“Well these things are bound to happen from time to time,” the stranger continued matter of factly. “With the war going on there was so much to do - it amazes me that more mistakes didn’t happen. So I gathered you up and tucked you right back in so quickly no one even missed you. I found your friend, the sergeant out behind the tent. He was hardly surprised to see me and came along without so much as a backwards glance.” He paused for a moment. “And all this time you thought I was just a figment of your fevered dreams.”
Jess looked down at his revolver and then looked up and asked, “so are you comin’ for me now?”
“No, boy, not you.”
“Who then?” Jess demanded, Daisy? Mike? And then in a softer voice, “Slim?”
“I can’t tell you – I’m sorry but that’s just the way it is.”
“Well, then take me instead,” Jess pleaded.
“I’m afraid it doesn’t work that way – if it did why everyone would be trying to cut a deal with me. Fact is you go when it’s your time and not a moment sooner or later – well usually that’s the case except when I make a mistake like I did with you.” The stranger looked closely at Jess as if reading his mind. “Now don’t you go taking a notion to put that gun to your head and pulling the trigger – it won’t work – sure it might go off – might make a goodly hole in your head – but if it isn’t your time, you won’t die, least ways not just now.”
Jess shifted the revolver from hand to hand and when he looked up again, the stranger was gone.
Slim Sherman awoke as the eastern sky first began to lighten. Glancing over as he had every hour throughout the night, he saw to his dismay that Jess’ bed was still empty and un-slept in. Pulling on his clothes, not bothering to wash up, he started a fire in the stove and then quietly went out onto the porch. All there was to be seen was the remains of a stubbed out black cigarette discarded in the corner. Thoughtfully he bent and picked it up. Then he headed for the barn where he found Jess starting the morning chores.
“Jess?” he asked slowly. Jess continued forking straw and ignored him. Exasperated, Slim reached out and took the pitchfork from his hands. “Jess, you about got us all crazy with worry. Now I don’t know what’s buggin’ you and I know you’ll tell me if and when you’re ready but I can’t be having you staggering around weak and senseless from not eatin’ or sleepin’. I’m not askin’ you this time, I’m tellin’ you. Get your butt in the house and into that bed and if you can’t sleep, at least just lie there and get some rest. And then I want you to eat some breakfast – at least choke down what you can. And when you’ve done that, I’ll be up in the north pasture takin down that big old pine we started yesterday.”
Jess gave him a crooked smile. “I’m sorry, Pard. Guess I had that commin’. I’ll see ya later.” Then he turned and headed wearily back towards the house.
“Aunt Daisy? How come Jess is sleepin’ late? Is he sick or somethin’? Mike asked.
“Shhh, we have to be very quiet. No, I don’t think he’s sick exactly, just very very tired. We’ll let him sleep as long as he needs to.”
In fact, Daisy was afraid he might very well be sick. He hadn’t eaten or slept in more than 24 hours and even now, exhausted as he was, he wasn’t sleeping soundly. When she had checked, he was sprawled, fully clothed on the bed, his brow damp with sweat. He was tossing and turning and every so often he would call out but the words made no sense.
Around mid morning, she heard him getting up and hastily assembled his breakfast. He came slowly into the kitchen a short time later, dark circles under his red rimmed eyes. “Well there you are, sleepy head,” she said cheerily. “I’ve fixed you your favorite breakfast and I want you to eat every bit.”
Jess took a deep breath and tried to eat. He was sure the food was delicious but to him it tasted like sawdust. He ate methodically trying to make agreeable noises every now and then but he didn’t fool Daisy a bit.
“Hey Jess,” Mike called when he saw that he was up. “Did Aunt Daisy tell you we met the creepy man?”
“What creepy man?” Jess asked; wide awake now, his body rigid.
“The old guy dressed in black – the one that came in on the stage yesterday. Me and Aunt Daisy saw him down by the lake while we were pickin’ berries. I didn’t like him but Aunt Daisy said we had to be nice to him cause that was just what we had to do. Didn’t you, Aunt Daisy?”
“Yes, Mike, we need to be nice to everyone especially the folks just passing through – it’s the neighborly thing to do. Still, he was very strange. Something about him gave me the chills.”
Jess turned to Mike and said, “Now Tiger, you go an’ get that pig sty of a room of yours cleaned up so Daisy won’t have to keep gettin’ after ya.”
As Mike passed out of hearing range, Jess turned to Daisy and said more sharply than he intended, “That man has no business here on the ranch or any place close to it. If you see him, you get yourself and Mike and Slim as far away from him as you can and let me know. Do you understand? Do you?”
“Why yes, yes of course Jess. He was certainly odd, but do you really think he’s dangerous?”
“More than you can ever know,” Jess replied darkly. “I’m heading out to the north pasture to help Slim. Keep Mike in your sight at all times and stick close to the house.”
Daisy nodded her head seriously and watched as Jess rode off.
Jess tied his horse to a stump a safe distance away from the tree Slim was working on. Untying his saw and throwing a heavy rope over his shoulder, he began to make his way to the slope where Slim was carefully notching the tree in preparation for felling it. As he passed a thick copse of firs, he froze, his blood running cold in his veins.
“I know you’re there, you pasty faced bastard,” he yelled. “Get your bony ass out here where I can see you.”
The stranger stepped silently from behind a large tree and held out a long thin hand to Jess as though he expected him to shake it. Jess shrank from it but didn’t step backwards. “How is it that I’m the only one around that seems to know who you are?” he demanded.
The stranger leaned back against the tree and lit another of his long black cigarettes. “Ah. I was wondering if that was on your mind. Well you see it’s like this; when folks are in that twilight area between life and death, as you were, they tend to see things more clearly than they ever have before. Folks around here may not think they know who I am, but deep down they do – they just don’t want to admit it to themselves. They sense it – the animals do to and they are repelled because it’s an affront to their instincts for survival. But when death is very close, their eyes and minds are more open – they see me as I truly am. Not a ghoul but a sort of friend. A friend who will guide them out of this existence and into another. For you see, death is as much a part of living as birth is. When you saw me all those years ago, you weren’t repulsed as you are now. Back then you were already looking down the road to the great hereafter. But now – now you are healthy, you have ones who love you – ones you love – I’ve become the enemy - a threat not just to your own life but to the lives of all you hold dear. We’ll see each other again – you can depend on that. And I promise you,” he drew heavily on his cigarette, “when next we meet, you’ll be glad to see me.”
“Jess!” Slim yelled as he caught sight of him. “I’m going to need more ropes. This tree is leanin’ the wrong way.”
Jess picked up the rope and saw and began running toward Slim, noting out of the corner of his eye that the stranger had once again vanished. As he drew closer there was suddenly a loud crack like a rifle shot. The great tree snapped at the point where Slim had notched it and began it’s slow decent. From where he stood, Slim thought it would land well clear of him but Jess could see that he had misjudged. Dropping the equipment, he ran as fast as he could and with one last burst of speed was able to push Slim out of harm’s way. But he was not fast enough to save himself. A large limb struck him a glancing blow on the back of his head. His last thoughts as darkness closed in was that the stranger had been wrong – he had been able to strike a deal.
“Hey, easy there,” Slim admonished as he laid a hand on Jess’ chest and gently pushed him back against the pillows. “You try settin’ up and you’ll be sorry.”
Jess winced as his head throbbed with pain and closed his eyes until the room stopped spinning around him. Opening them again, he was able to focus a bit and found himself looking directly into his partner’s kind, worried blue eyes. “How – how long have I been out?” he croaked.
Smiling, Slim placed a cool wet cloth on his forehead. “Long enough to give us a scare, I’ll tell ya that. Oh, you ain’t been out the whole time. You’ve been a rantin’ about angels of death an makin’ deals and all sorts of nonsense.”
Jess groaned as he moved too quickly to drink from the glass Slim was offering him. He looked around the room anxiously – “Mike and Daisy? Where are they?” he asked with panic creeping into his voice.
Slim laughed. Mike’s asleep on the couch – I think some of your stories were scarin’ him. And Daisy just went to take a cake out of the oven. Eli Conner passed away this mornin’ and she wanted me to take it over there as soon as we were sure you were ok. What is it with wimmin and their cakes anyways? First sign of trouble and they head right for the kitchen and start cookin’.”
Turning serious, Slim wrung out the cloth and replaced it. “Wish we could give you somethin’ for that pain but the doc says you got a concussion. You’re going to be fine though.” He was silent for a moment and then continued. “You saved my life you know, an’ well, I’m mighty grateful.” Blushing slightly, he looked away as tears threatened.
“It just wasn’t your time, Slim,” Jess replied. “Guess it wasn’t mine either.”