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By Tim Bernhardt


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Gently I touched the soft skin of his small face, his tiny, smooth hand cradled in mine.  I smiled at the difference; my hands were rough, work hardened.  They were not always this way though.  Once they were hands that handled tools of death and violence, now they bring life from the ground.    I continued to stare at the face of my son.

“Jacob,” I whispered, still holding his hand.  “I hope for you to grow tall and strong.  To stay on the path God chose and away from the evil that your father fell prey to.” 

Slowly I stood so as not to wake the boy.  A silly grin sat plastered to my face as I pulled his sheet up, tucking it under the bottom of his chin.  I continued to stare; amazed that he had grown so large the last five years.  Five years.  Sighing, I tiptoed down the creaky stairs from the loft.  I could hear my wife in the other room of our small cabin, rustling around putting the baby to bed.  I would have never thought I would be so blessed with this family.  At the bottom of the stairs I glanced to the corner of the main room at the old, worn trunk by the fireplace.  My old life sat covered in dust at the bottom of that trunk, under the blankets.  The life of a Joshua Stone that no one here has ever heard of.  A Joshua Stone that I didn’t want to remember.   I left that trail of blood far away to start my life anew.  Walking to the window I stared pensively out into the fields, a knot of fear gnawing at my gut.  It was a beautiful night, clear and warm.  I’ve worked hard on this land.  Worked hard to build a good life for the woman that saved me from the brink of destruction.  Now, one man wants to take that away.  Wants to destroy what I’ve built so that he may have more.  I turned to stare again at the battered trunk.  I felt the need for my old life, a life I don’t want but am afraid that without it I will lose all I care for.

“Are you coming to bed, Joshua?”

Turning from the window I looked to my bedroom door. My wife, my beautiful savior stood silhouetted in the doorway, covered in a thin, white nightshirt.  The moonlight flooding through the open window leaving nothing to my imagination.

“Soon Maria, I’ve a little thinking to do yet.”

“Are you sure?”  I watched Maria stretch her hands above her head and smile.  She knows I cannot resist her. 

“I can think of better things for you to do than sit at the window brooding all night.”

“I’m sure you can, my love.  It’s just that I’m worried about Rebman.  I don’t think he will rest until he owns this whole valley and I’m the only one standing in his way.”

“Come to bed, you will have all day tomorrow to worry about Rebman.”

I stare after her as she walks into the room and slides under the covers.  She is more beautiful today than the day we met.  Blowing out the lamp and grinning like a schoolboy I follow her into our room, the trunk by the fireplace all but forgotten.           

Death rode to my door on that warm summer night, cloaked in darkness.  I had kissed my young son and baby daughter goodnight for the last time, long before the riders came.  I lay awake, in the comforting arms of my wife; our bodies still entwined from the earlier lovemaking.  The sounds of restless horses drifted through the window on the warm, night breeze.  Hate filled voices carried in the night.

            I prayed it wouldn’t come to this.  I should have been prepared, but I had grown comfortable the last few years, happy.  My life of peace and tranquillity would bring death to my door.  They came too quickly.  Shots rang out.   Screams hammered at my ears as I gathered my family.  I felt the heat.  I could hear the roar of the fire.  The smell of burning wood and scorched hair threatened to overwhelm me as I huddled my family together and rushed out the front door, from one earth bound hell to another.   I stumbled into the night air, which now felt cool to my blistered skin. They waited, shrouded in black sitting quietly on their horses.  Five men. 

The thunder came, I felt the spray of blood on my face as my wife slide from my arms, her face shot away.  I heard screams and vaguely realized they were my own.  I saw my young son turn to run.  Saw a fat, bearded man take careful aim.  A gaping hole too large for his small back burst from nowhere, then my boy pitched forward, face in the dirt.  I felt a powerful blow strike my chest.  Stumbling back into the front of the house I noticed a large red stain on the front of my shirt.  I slid down the wall and sat heavily on the porch, next to the oak door.  The cries of my baby pierced the night air.  I watched helplessly as a thin man with a long scar splitting his face laughed and grabbed the baby by the leg, pulling her free from the arms of her dead mother.  He swung her around his head and smashed her into the post in front of me, her blood and brains spattering my face.  I tried to scream but no sounds came.  I felt the tears trickle down my cheek. Closing my eyes I felt sadness and despair wash over me. I thought of the good times on this same porch.  Times spent in laughter and song. I had seen enough, felt enough. I prayed for death and he answered.  I heard his whispered promise and I felt the hate begin to fester like an old wound suddenly ripped open, its viscous fluid spilling inside me.  The fires raged, mine more than theirs.  I struggled to my feet, reaching for a pistol that was not there.  I heard laughter and felt something hammer into the back of my skull.  I fell to the ground and rolled onto my back.  They were off their horses now circling me.  The big bearded man and two others picked up the bodies of my wife and son, tossing them into the blazing fire that had once been my home.  The smell of burning flesh assaulted my nostrils.  I gagged on my own vomit and rolled to my side.  Clumsily I staggered to my feet, only to again be knocked to the dirt.  I felt the blood, sticky and wet drip down my face and cling to my hair.  A man swirled into my vision.  Lean, with a cruel face and eyes like chips of blue ice.  I face that I will remember in my nightmares forever. 

            "I told you to move, dirt farmer. You should have listened."

            "You killed them Rebman."  My voice sounded hollow to my ears, far away. “But I’ve made my pact and will pay a steep price to climb up from the pits of hell to take my revenge on you murdering bastards."

            "You should have thought of that before.  You may end up in the pits of hell but I doubt you'll be doing any climbing out."

             I saw his small, cruel mouth twist into a parody of a smile as he leveled his gun and thumbed back the hammer. 

“Pull the trigger and no where on this earth will you be safe.”  I watched his eyes narrow as I smiled up at him.  His hand wavered slightly as his finger slowly squeezed the trigger. I heard the explosion but never felt the bullet that killed me.      

I saw the bright light that I've heard some folks talk about but only for an instant. Then darkness came; it was comfortable, peaceful.  It stayed with me for what seemed quite sometime.  I didn't want to leave.  I felt a drop of water on my face.  I ignored it.  Safe, secure, no death, no suffering.  The drops came faster now.  Irritating.  I wiped at them and then the smell of damp, charred wood reached me, brought me back to where I didn't want to return.

            I awoke to a nightmare.  My home was burned to the ground.  The smell of old smoke hung in the air.   Rain mixed with dried blood covered my face.  Day had come; there was light but no sun.  The sky was gray and dark with great clouds swollen and weeping above me. I rolled to my side and my body exploded with pain.  I lay there, in agony staring into the smoldering skeleton that was once my wife.  Her once beautiful blonde hair brittle and scorched, sticking out from a face melted to a blackened skull.

            I forced myself to my feet and staggered to where she lay.  I gagged, vomiting the remains of our last meal together.  I looked beside her and saw what was left of my boy and baby.  My throat constricted, I had no energy for screams.  Only quiet sobs as tears mixed with the rain and blood. 

            I took a long time to bury them.  The ground was wet and muddy.   I couldn't find my shovel so I dug with my hands.  Knuckles torn, nails broken and bleeding, I gently placed the crumbling bodies of my family in the same shallow grave.  The rain finally stopped so I curled into a ball amidst the ashes of my home and succumbed to the darkness that had been threatening to overwhelm me all day. 

 I awoke to a night that was clear and pure.  A great black shroud studded with millions of diamonds.  The stars hung so low I felt I could reach up and touch them.  I felt no pain.  I sat up and ran my hand across my skull feeling for the gaping wound that should have been there.   Just a small dimple above my left eye.  I tore my shirt open and saw only dried blood where earlier was an ugly hole.  I thought back to when I woke before, how much earlier?  How long have I slept?  My thoughts were like a thousand bees buzzing through my brain. The smell of ashes was still strong.  I stood and began to walk through the debris, searching. It made no sense but somehow I knew they would be there, waiting.  Afraid to look yet unable not to, I lifted my head and stared at the trunk.  It sat by the hearth, whole, untouched by fire.   The wood was cool to my touch.  I opened the lid.  Underneath the blankets that my wife and I used to snuggle together under during winter, they sat.  I knew this wasn't possible but then again, I knew I should be lying in the dirt next to my family, dead.

            I slid the belt around my hips.  The guns felt heavy.  The grips felt good in my callused hands.  Different hands than last held them.  I felt whole, the pieces to an old puzzle falling into place.  I lifted one from its holster and checked the chamber.  I didn't really need to check.   I already knew the answer but habits die hard.   All six shells sat quietly in their places, waiting to be called upon.

I felt a gentle push at my elbow.  I turned and looked into the eyes of a large gray stallion.  I'd never seen this horse before but shouldn't have been surprised it was here.  A hollow gray man atop a gray horse, I left the only home I ever cared to have.  The only wife and family I ever needed to love and went in search of the bringers of death.  I had an oath to fulfill, vengeance to take.

            The moon hung motionless overhead.  A grim white orb staring down at the fates of man.  I rode into New Jericho covered in the same darkness that took my life, my family.  The streets were quiet, empty.  The dark buildings lined up in a neat row on the short narrow street with the only lights burning from the saloon at the far end.  I rode slowly stirring little dust.  Death never hurries.  There's no need, for it is inevitable.  

            I swung down from the gray horse and made my way into the saloon.  I could imagine the sight that would greet the eyes of these people.  A filthy man covered in ragged, blood stained clothes, the marks of fire and death upon him.  I smiled grimly and thought of the bloody bodies of my family as I stepped through the bat wing doors into the brightly-lit chaos.

            Eyes turned.  Quiet enveloped the room as people stared.  I stood at the door a moment until I recognized a bearded face at a corner table.  I walked steadily toward the large man, passing the long bar with the huge ornate mirror behind.  I heard the screeching of wood as chairs were hurriedly slid from under tables.  Boots thumped as men moved hastily out of the path I had chosen.  His eyes grew wide as I neared.  I smelled the fear oozing from his pores, felt the panic in the air.

            "It can't be you!"  The chair crashed to the floor as he staggered to his feet.  "I saw the blood, the top of your head was blown away.  You must be dead!"

            "Yes fat man, I am."  I watched as he reached for his gun.  My own pistol slid easily into my palm.  I saw the stab of flame from his barrel, smelled burnt powder, felt a heavy blow to my chest.   My pistol kicked into my hand sending a messenger of death to the fat, bearded man.  His chest exploded, he stumbled backward collapsing into a heap on the dirty wood floor.  Looking down I noticed a bright red stain overlapping the darker brown stain on the front of my shirt.  Ignoring this I walked over and stood above the dead man, his blood sticking to the soles of my worn boots.  Reaching down I grabbed him by the hair and looked into his sightless eyes.  Sure that he was indeed dead I turned and walked into the night, whispered questions trailing after me.

            If it was answers they wanted I could give them few.  Indeed, I was once Joshua Stone but now I'm not sure.  I am he, yet not.  Just a shadow of what I once was.  The Gray Man, Deathbringer.   I'd finished a small part of what needed done this night.  The wound in my chest had already closed.  I stripped my shirt off and washed my naked chest in the trough by the stables.  A few curious people had spilled into the streets but most stayed inside the safety of there own homes.  There was an ill wind blowing this hot summer night and I was riding its currents, the town’s people could feel it.  After cleaning my shirt the best I could, I pulled the tattered remains back on and climbed onto the back of my horse.  I knew where I could find the rest.

              Rebman's ranch sat in the comfort of a small valley surrounded by tall pines and oak.  A Bunkhouse and barn lay on each side of his large house.  A man could ride the gently rolling hills of his land all day and still not leave it.  A great river cut through the lush green pastures.  Hundreds of large cattle roamed the land.  All this and yet he still wanted more.  I was here to collect the toll for that greed, a greed that caused him to murder, to become a killer of women and children.  Avarice is a sin and he would pay a high penance for it. 

            I breathed in the smell of fresh grass, heard the sighing of the wind as it moved though trees.  I thought how wrong it was to bring death on such a truly beautiful night, yet I continued to ride to the front of Rebman’s home.  Stopping at the foot of the porch steps, I sat quietly on my gray horse, a grim, silent specter waiting for the master of the house to notice me.  An eerie calm washed over me, now that the end was near.  Dogs barked, horses shied and kicked in the corral.  They could smell death on me. It wouldn't be long now.  I wondered if my master would claim me after this night or doom me to walk the earth.  A lost soul hovering between life and death.

            Lights came on, loud voices, stumbling feet.  I turned and saw men coming from the bunkhouse, surrounding me. 

            "Who's out there!  Don't you know what time it is?"  Commanded Rebman, banging open the front door and standing on the porch facing me.

            "I know," I whispered.

            "What, what did you say?"

            I lifted my head and stared into his eyes.  "I know, it is time to pay for your sins."

            "You, it can't be!"

            "Twice said, twice wrong."  I lay my hand gently on the butt on my pistol.  "I made you a promise last night, the night I died.  I always keep my promises."

            Shots rang out from behind me.  I fell from my horse onto the hard ground.  I could smell the dirt in my nostrils, feel the blood run from the new hole in my back.  I smiled grimly and pushed myself back onto my feet.

            "You're no ghost, see you bleed," yelled the man who shot from behind.

            "Yes, I bleed.  It just doesn't seem to matter much."

            My pistols came free in one smooth motion.  Thumbing the hammers back I turned and walked into the group behind me.  Guns roared.  The sounds were deafening.  Acrid smoke drifted in the air, stinging my eyes.  I felt bullets tear at my flesh, still I walked forward.  Shot after shot I fired, bodies fell, men screamed.  I saw the face of a thin young man crumble behind my bullets.  Seconds that seemed like hours passed, blood streamed from my face and chest.  Bodies littered the dark wet ground around me.  Groans escaped dying lips. I turned and walked back to where Rebman stood, still on his porch, frozen in fear.

            My footsteps sounded hollow on the oak steps of the porch.  I felt tired, drained.  I knew my soul was lost for eternity.  The Devil had granted my wish and I would have to pay his price.  Always, there’s always a price.  My family was lost to me forever.  Still, I was compelled, I must finish this.

"It is time."

"Please, I beg you, don't."  Rebman fell to his knees, grabbing at the leg of my torn, bloody pants.

 I held my pistol inches from Rebman's head, my finger tightened on the trigger. A ray of light seemed to pass through my body, I heard the soft, musical voice of my wife fill my ears.  It doesn't have to be this way she said, come to me.  I vaguely noticed Rebman backing away, still on his knees.  I noticed yet didn’t care.  I saw the face of my boy, smiling next to his mother, beckoning me.  Her voice came again.  It is done Joshua, put away your guns, leave the dark and come to me, to us.  I sighed and lowered my arm to my side, my pistol hanging like a useless, dead thing in my hand.  I felt my body fill with overwhelming joy.   Hate washed away in a river of light.  Happiness filled the dark void of my soul.  Redemption.  I longed to leave this world, to be with my family again in the next.

            Ah, but the tricks the devil plays with man. Why did I think it would be so easy to void our bargain?  I saw Rebman pull a pistol from his boot, saw him aim it at me, watched as his finger squeezed the trigger and truly did not care.  I knew, somehow, that this bullet could kill me but I was no longer for this world so had no more need of this broken body.  Though, as I said before habits die-hard and the devil will get his due.  I felt my hand rise, felt my thumb pull back on the hammer of my pistol, heard the explosion, smelled the smoke and saw a bright flame stab from the end of the barrel.  I watched in horror as my bullet blew the side of Rebman’s face away, blood and brain spattering against the door to his beautiful home.

            This time I heard screaming and knew immediately it was mine.  I heard the sound of a sigh from the sweet, musical voice in my head.  Then a deep, harsh, voice laughing, drowning out all other sound.  I stumbled from the porch into the yard and fell to my knees just as the rain began to fall.  I looked to heaven, tears streaming from my face. Despair in my heart.  I knelt like this for a long time, in the mud among the dead, until the rain had stopped and the sun began it morning climb across the purple sky.  Slowly I rose to my feet.  Dead yet feeling more pain than I ever felt alive.  I stood, my filthy damp clothes drying in the heat of the sun.  Tears carving furrows through the grime on my face.

            "I am Joshua Stone, the Gray Man.  I am doomed to walk this earth for eternity and Death is my master," I whispered to the unblinking red orb hovering in the sky.  I felt the nuzzling at my elbow and saw the gray stallion standing beside me.  He seemed to be smiling. 

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